Monday, 30 April 2012

MY NAME IS FAITH - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2012 MUST-SEE #12

My Name is Faith (2012) ***
dir. Tiffany Sudela-Junker, Jason Banker, Jorge Torres-Torres

Review by
Greg Klymkiw

During the past week I have seen documentaries about hunger, unemployment, urban blight, consumerist greed, judicial corruption and systemic racism (and torture) within prisons. Now, let us add childhood neglect to this cheery list.

We sigh and shake our heads and bemoan such horrendous conditions in Third World Countries - rife with human rights abuses, oligarchies, dictatorships, persecution and the sort of corruption that breeds, rat-like, within Totalitarian regimes.

So what Third World country is the target of these above named horrors?

Why none other than that nation which was founded in principles to "establish Justice and insure domestic Tranquility" - the very same nation, which steadfastly believe(d) that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed . . . with certain unalienable Rights . . . Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". The same land of the supposed Free which snubbed its nose at "a long train of abuses and usurpations" that were designed to reduce a nation "under absolute Despotism." A country secure in its belief that it has the right - nay, duty - "to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the United States of America. And in these fine United States, I have learned - jaw agape - while watching the gut-wrenching, harrowing documentary My Name is Faith that in this great land, about five innocent children every single day DIE from neglect. Those who survive, however, enter a living death - one that decimates their innocence, their trust, their power to love - stealing at the most tender, precious age "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" and inflicts upon them "a long train of abuses."

My Name is Faith focuses most of its attention upon a deeply intelligent and beautiful 12-year-old girl, so neglected and abused by her birth mother, so continually put in harm's way and left to her own devices while the one person, who should have protected and nurtured her, lolled about in a drug-and-booze-infused stupor of ignorance and denial. Though it took them long enough, Child Protection Services pulled Faith from the dubious arms of motherhood, whilst Mommy Dearest was booted into prison. Eventually CPS made the little girl available to a warm, caring family that was willing to adopt her and raise her as their own.

The problem is this: Children who survive this sort of torture enter an even darker place when confronted by the unfamiliar emotions of love and caring. They lash out, often violently, at those who want only to love and care for them. These children become dangerous to themselves and others.

The kids from these backgrounds are afflicted with Attachment Disorder. Its clutches are so insidious that parents are ill-equipped to deal with their new family members. The film itself, charts Faith's journey with her new parents to heal. They, in turn, can be provided with practical tools to parent these damaged children in emotional healing camps where the whole family attends to engage in a series of workshops, practical exercises, games and other activities aimed at establishing bonds of love.

There's considerable heroism on display here from both the parents and children who attend these camps. Faith herself is such a compelling figure, that it's impossible to take one's eyes off her and root for every challenge she overcomes.

Still, some documentaries - like this one - are more worthy as subject matter than they are as filmmaking. My Name is Faith, while clearly not without power, falls slightly short (at least in its present form) of its huge potential, not just as an important personal document, but as cinema of a much higher order. The movie moves in fits and starts - too full of TV-styled cliches, the most troubling of which are the seemingly endless slow-motion montages accompanied by soulful vocals in the background.

While the intent of this approach, in retrospect, was clear, the fact remains that it clashes with everything else in the picture that works so well without it. Yes, employing techniques that are juxtapositional can create a dramatic conflict, but given that the movie has plenty of narrative and emotional force, a part of me wishes I DIDN'T feel a directorial/editorial hand in these transitional interludes.

Faith and many of the parents, counsellors, therapists and other children are such forceful, unique and inspiring individuals, that it's a bit disconcerting to see much of this play out with hackneyed cinematic techniques (the aforementioned montage sequences being the biggest offenders in this regard). Our hearts and minds would have been as touched by the subjects if the film had opted for a more spare direct cinema approach instead of the endless attempts to wring tears of both sadness and joy from a mise-en-scene more suited to by-the-numbers television docs.

When the film focuses upon the events and interviews, we're totally with it. However, when choices are made by the filmmakers to "gussy" this up with the aforementioned techniques, we're forced out of the drama and the forward movement the movie needs. In fact, I think the montages (sans slow motion) might have winded us emotionally with a mixture of location sound and a judicious use of foley.

Soundscape, given the subject matter and the naturalistic way in which so much of the action in the camp is rendered would have been preferable to score. Ambient sound, perhaps even with a sparing voiceover culled from footage not used, but judiciously applied over these scenes would have been a definitive forcing of the filmmakers' hands, but not as a cliche, but rather as an integral part of the film's "life" as a living, breathing entity unto itself - pulsating with the poetry inherent in cinema rather than the attempts to mine emotion from tried, true, but finally easy techniques.

The movie and more importantly, Faith's incredible journey, deserves to be elevated to the sublime. There's a spiritual quality to this film that's just below the surface. It needs to explode "naturally". Yes, we need the filmmakers' to take us there, but the manner chosen to do so suppresses this rather than letting it breathe. The songs and score tell us what we already know. The slow-motion draws us to cinematic technique rather than what's happening for real. Drama, even - and perhaps especially in documentary - is so much more powerful when we discover emotion and information on our own (or, at least, feel like we're doing it on our own).

A disturbing aspect of this film was the use of a song invoking the healing powers of God and the damage inflicted by the Devil. This coupled with a morning speech where the participants were asked to "thank God" for their breakfast were only two small nods to religion. They stuck out like sore thumbs, though. Many of the problems in America, and, for that matter, the world, are directly attributable to governments and oligarchies using faith to place their subjects in a state of compliance and subservience. These two moments were enough to take me out of the film when they occurred and made me wonder, how many such instances were left on the cutting room floor?

Maybe none.

Maybe more.

Either way, a disturbing enough thought to detract from the matter at hand.

There is so much faith (pun intended) in this film, that stripping away nods to the tenets of organized religion would have been a much better approach. Faith and spirituality CAN exist in a secular world - including belief in some elements of Old Testament Scripture or the Koran, or what have you. That said, making sure the material of the film is secular is precisely the thing that allows us to focus on the faith and spirit of the children, parents and team leaders within the camp. It doesn't clutter the proceedings and does, I daresay, allow even "believers" to draw their own conclusions of a Divine Entity's hand in the lives and actions of the characters.

On one hand, these all might seem like minor quibbles, but it's the minor that often becomes major in films like this one where delicacy must rule the day.

These flaws, however, can be forgiven in light of the importance of making people aware of yet another horrendous suffering inflicted upon the American people by a system so rotten and corrupt to the core that a once-great nation is on the verge of total collapse.

My Name is Faith reminds us that it's the children, the future of the country, who are most at risk in these dangerous days.

"My Name is Faith" is playing Wed, May 2 7:15 PM at the The Royal Cinema and Thu, May 3 1:30 PM at the Cumberland 3 and Sat, May 5 6:30 PM at The ROM Theatre during Toronto's 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. For tickets visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

An Affair of the Heart - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2012 MUST-SEE #11

An Affair of the Heart (2012) dir. Sylvia Caminer ***

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The 80s was truly the most abominable decade of my life. Movies generally hit an all time artistic low. Once punk and its offshoots died, the music seemed to die with it. Fashion was abominable. Life was worse. Those born at the tail end of the Baby Boom had little to look forward to. An awful lot of slacking was the order of the day as all the dirty hippies and their ilk from the beginning and middle sections of the boom hogged all the great jobs and snuffled at every available trough, leaving scraps for the lost generation that slightly pre-dated the McJob Gen-X-ers. There seemed to be virtually nothing good about this woeful decade. That said, I was recently reminded that kick-ass, working-class Top-40 rock n' roll was a bit of an oasis for us before-our-time curmudgeons-in-the-making.

Seeing An Affair of the Heart, it suddenly dawned on me that Rick Springfield was an artist whose music gave me a whole whack o' pleasure - especially living in a mid-western Canadian prairie city like Winnipeg where you drove everywhere. "Jessie's Girl", Springfield's Grammy Award winner and any number of singles he generated during this period were a welcome relief on long car trips via AM radio and 8-track car stereo. A fella' could crank Springfield and put the pedal to the metal with considerable abandon.

So how and why is it that I forgot this guy? Frankly, I don't think it had anything to do with the music. Watching Springfield do his stuff during some of the terrific concert footage in this new documentary made me realize how cool he really was. Maybe it had something to do with his looks. Even though he was in his 30s during this hugely successful period of his career, he had a kind of youthful pretty-boy appeal which seemed to be diametrically opposed to a lot of his tunes that raged. Or maybe it was his years as a regular actor on the soap opera "General Hospital". After all, how could anyone take a musician seriously who was moonlighting in daily melodrama for housewives?

At the end of the day, though, I suspect Springfield was simply guilty by association for being part of an utterly horrendous decade. When I think 80s, all I can think about are John Hughes abominations, the moronic George Lucas Star Wars sequels that almost ruined movies, the dumbing down of Spielberg with his Lucas-influenced extravaganzas and virtually every movie from the producing team of Bruckheimer and Simpson - all those machine-tooled pictures that Pauline Kael nailed perfectly when she titled her published compilation of 80s film reviews "State of the Art".

State of the art, indeed.

Many fans, however, did not forget Springfield and held a musical and emotional torch for the literal and metaphorical chords he struck.

Chances are, if An Affair of the Heart is a hit - which it could well become, Springfield might yet reach his widest audience yet (and his loyal audiences in the 80s were huge indeed). What might just do it is that he's shorn the pretty-boyishness. After all, the guy is in his 60s now. He is, however, still incredibly good looking - the miles he's put on his visage and his more recent musical output has the sort of weight that's more commanding than ever.

Director Sylvia Caminer's film works well as a tribute to Springfield, but what places it in a unique position above many rock documentaries is that it focuses primarily on the fans who adore him and the unique relationship he has with them - collectively and in many cases, one-on-one. The movie is slick and entertaining. Some of the fan tales of how Springfield and his music affected their lives in positive ways are often very funny, but more often than not, are heart-wrenchingly moving. In particular, the stories of a woman with a congenital heart defect and another, a female Unitarian minister who was brutally gang-raped are utterly soulful. Springfield's relationship with these fans is especially poignant.

While presenting an original approach to a rock legend, the movie leaves many unanswered questions. While briefly touching on his infidelity to his wife of thirty years, his 80s disregard of his fans and his countless and continuing bouts with suicidal thoughts and depression, the extremely unique perspective on Springfield almost maddeningly gets in the way of those who want more perspective on the deep struggles he clearly endured. The movie only scratches the surface of Springfield's dark side. For example, it features a good amount of footage from the promotional tour of his tell-all autobiography and we get bits and pieces of darkness, but it's always framed within the context of, "Boy, he sure pulls no punches in this book of his."

Yes, I'm compelled to read Springfield's book, but frankly, I'd have been happier if the film itself addressed these issues more head-on. This, I think, might have provided added insight, drama and conflict to the special relationship he does indeed have with his multitude of fans.

At 93 minutes, the film does not feel long and is frankly entertaining enough to have survived some deeper digging. Given the nature of such documentaries, there is probably a whole lot of good material that wound up on the cutting room floor which, will no doubt, find it's way into the eventual DVD/Blu-ray extras. I might be wrong, but a part of me doubts these extras will have more in the way of the dark stuff I'm craving. Then again, I'm more of a 70s child and chances are good his fans might be less enamoured with the Sam Peckinpah/Martin Scorsese elements of his life that would turn my own crank a bit more.

"An Affair of the Heart" plays Sun, Apr 29 8:45 PM at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Mon, Apr 30 7:15 PM at The Royal Cinema and Thu, May 3 6:30 PM at Cumberland 3 during Toronto's Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2012. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2012 - Greg Klymkiw's First 10 Must-See Feature Films of the Festival (presented in alphabetical order).

DETROPIA:Rachel Grady/Heidi Ewing's (Jesus Camp) probing, provocative portrait of urban blight. Amidst crime, poverty and decay, there's still a pulse and heartbeat of something very cool. FULL REVIEW HERE

DRAGAN WENDE - WEST BERLIN: Vuk Maksimovic, a burgeoning cinematographer in Serbia, had, for years, heard tales of his legendary, high-rolling Uncle Dragan in Berlin. Now he was going to get to know him. Armed with two cameras and two trusted colleagues, he has made one of the most original, entertaining and penetrating documentaries about the wild days of pre-and-post communist society. FULL REVIEW HERE

FINDING NORTH: Focusing upon hunger in America, this important, passionate film moves like a shark, attacking its subject with precision and ferocity. Beautifully shot and edited, the craft is very high. We not only get great music from T Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars, but fervent appearances by Tom Colicchio AND Jeff Bridges. FULL REVIEW HERE

HERMAN'S HOUSE: This is an extraordinary film about extraordinary people in a country that has sadly learned nothing since 1776 but the right of might, the power of the dollar and the exploitation of the poor. Here's the Klymkiw Film Corner review of Herman's House: FULL REVIEW HERE

JEFF: It's a testament to the director's ability to work with three fascinating subjects and get the phenomenal footage he wrenches out of them - in spite of the unwelcome and unnecessary dramatics recreations, that this film still holds up as the most powerful rendering of the atrociously horrific crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer yet committed to film. FULL REVIEW HERE

THE LEGEND OF A WARRIOR: A personal doc wherein filmmaker Corey Lee reclaims his Chinese roots by training with his Dad, the legendary Frank Pang Lee, a great master of the martial arts who personally trained the equally legendary Billy Chow, the reigning world kickboxing champion through much of the 80s and a stalwart actor in over 50 martial arts pictures. FULL REVIEW HERE

THE PROPHET: Very similar to Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi), as well as Ron Fricke's Baraka, Gary Tarn's film uses music and image to convey Kahlil Gibran's philosophies which, I grudgingly must admit, work perfectly within the context of the contemporary events used. That Gibran's words are delivered with such power by Thandie Newton sure doesn't hurt. FULL REVIEW HERE

THE PUNK SYNDROME: "Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day" is, without question, one of the greatest punk bands of all time. They are the unforgettable subjects of this breathtaking feature documentary that declares: "I demand your immediate attention or you die, motherfucker!" FULL REVIEW HERE

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES: If I hadn't know otherwise, I might have thought that Lauren Greenfield's feature documentary was, in fact, an intensely satirical mockumentary on consumer culture in America. It's real, alright! All TOO real. FULL REVIEW HERE

THE WORLD BEFORE HER: What is the future for the young women of modern India? Is it adherence to thousands of years of subservient tradition or finding success through beauty? The chasm between the two couldn't be wider, but we discover in Nisha Pahuja's extraordinary film (recent Best Documentary Winner at the Tribeca Film Festival), the differences are often skin deep as parallel lines clearly exist beneath the surface. FULL REVIEW HERE

Friday, 27 April 2012

WARRIORS OF THE RAINBOW: SEEDIQ BALE - Review by Greg Klymkiw - Stirring war epic of Japan's colonization of Taiwan and the eventual uprising of the Aboriginal mountain dwellers.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale dir. Te-Sheng Wei, ***
Starring: Masanobu Andô, Jun'ichi Haruta, Sabu Kawahara

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The history of colonialism during the first millennium is a shameful one, though more often than not, the stories that we've seen on film are of Western European exploitation of aboriginal nations (Little Big Man, Dances With Wolves, The New World) and, to a lesser extent, tales of Israel's repression of cultures in the Middle East (pick any picture by the great Elia Suleiman - in particular, The Time That Remains) and England's rule over countries in the UK (Braveheart, Rob Roy, The Wind That Shakes the Barley). There is, however, a "rich" tradition of colonialism in Asia and Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is a stirring epic of Japan's ruthless rule over Taiwan.

No doubt a simplification of the events in the early 20th Century that saw Taiwan's rainbow warriors reduced to "civilized" slaves of the Japanese ruling class, this doesn't detract from the picture's enormous entertainment value and food for thought. Beginning with a jaw-droppingly thrilling pig hunt in the mountains and a subsequent tussle twixt warring tribes, the movie provides a glimpse of life in the Taiwanese jungles before the Japanese invasion. When the Japanese invade, we're privy to their wholesale savage slaughter of tribe members to instil fear in them in order to place the colonial yoke upon them. We jump 25 years later and the Japanese crow about how they have brought civilization to the "savages" and keep the older ones playing "fetch" for them, whilst a younger generation is turned into subservient "Japanese". The latter group, in spite of the suppression of their culture and their willingness to bend to the will of Nippon, are stilled viewed as "savages".

Eventually, the rainbow warriors have had enough. Their leader has been quietly planning a revolt. When the time comes to strike back and commit the necessary "blood sacrifice" to their Gods (thus ensuring entrance and enshrinement in the heavenly rainbow valley) we're offered a good one hour of screen time devoted to magnificent carnage as 300 brave "savages" decimate the Japanese forces. With a nice combination of digital gore and terrific fight choreography, we're served up a tasty platter that rivals Zack Snyder's 300.

At two and one half hours, the film is relatively free of the usual longueurs in such epics. The action sequences are mostly directed with aplomb. It occasionally suffers from the newly fashionable Cinematic Attention Deficit Disorder (CADD) with too many closeups and fast cutting, but for the most part we get a good array of terrific (and often strange) compositions and the kind of sword hacking delights that hang back and aren't afflicted by too many annoying edits.

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale is first-rate big screen Asian action epic antics and casts light upon a little known (to the West) historical example of brutal colonization.

"Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale" is currently in theatrical release in Canada via VVS Films and is especially spectacular on a big screen, so try to see it there first. It is also available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Amazon (US and UK) - Links Above

Thursday, 26 April 2012

THE PROPHET - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto's Hot Docs 2012 Must-See #10

The Prophet (2012) dir. Gary Tarn ***
Narration: Thandie Newton
Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw

How much one enjoys this cerebral adaptation of Kahlil Gibran's mega-selling book of prose poetry The Prophet might depend how disposed one is to Gibran's (for me) flaky touchy-feely philosophy.

My less-than-charitable feelings about Gibran, however, were muted considerably by Gary Tarn's evocative, poetic filmmaking. In what is a stroke of exquisite taste, he's enlisted the brilliant actress Thandie Newton (Besieged, Crash, The Pursuit of Happyness) to narrate Gibran's words. Her voice is infused with such mellifluous grace and passion, that one could almost close one's eyes for the entire running time of the picture and be utterly mesmerized by prose which, on the page, always seemed a bit too pretentiously thick for my literary needs.

Closing one's eyes, however, might not be the best advice since you'd miss out on Tarn's superb imagery (which he photographed all over the world). It's delicately and gorgeously edited and accompanied by an extremely appropriate score that Tarn also composed. Again, for me, the score feels borderline New-agey, but I have to also admit it works superbly within the context of both Thandie's humdinger of a voice and Tarn's photography.

Frankly, I much preferred Gibran's words within the context of the movie Tarn has rendered. The tale of a prophet about to go on a long journey (possibly to that big pulpit in the sky where all preachers and philosophers go) and his words of wisdom to a clutch of followers seems perfectly suited to the style of poetic docu-narrative Tarn has constructed.

Very similar to Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy (Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, and Naqoyqatsi), as well as Ron Fricke's (Reggio cinematographer) Baraka, Tarn's film uses music and image to convey Gibran's philosophies which, I grudgingly must admit, work perfectly within the context of contemporary events. That Gibran's words are delivered with such power by Thandie Newton sure doesn't hurt. In fact, I'd argue that Tarn doesn't actually stray from either Reggio and Fricke's non-verbal approach since Thandie gives Gibran's words a quality that's close to music itself.

On a sidenote, I watched the film with my 11-year-old daughter before she went to school in the morning. She was so transfixed that she couldn't stop talking about the movie and asking questions as I drove her to class. She also expressed interest in both seeing the movie again but only until after she could read Gibran's book of "The Prophet".

Tarn should have no problem appeasing the converted, but if the experience with my daughter is any indication, he might well have a great shot at influencing the yet-to-be-converted. As for curmudgeons like myself, I suspect I'd need to read the book again only at gunpoint, but I sure enjoyed watching Tarn's movie.

"The Prophet" is playing Sun, Apr 29 9:15 PM at the Isabel Bader Theatre and Tue, May 1 2:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 during Toronto's Hot Docs 2012 Film Festival. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE. The official website for "The Prophet" is HERE and Tarn's own website is HERE. I imagine many who see and like the movie will be into the music and there is a website for the soundtrack HERE.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

DRAGAN WENDE - WEST BERLIN Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw - Hot Docs 2012 Must-See #9

Dragan Wende - West Berlin dir. Lena Müller, Dragan von Petrovic, Vuk Maksimovic (co-director and cinematographer) **** Review By Greg Klymkiw

"I said to the guy: 'Pay 99 euros and fuck all day!' If you have no teeth, just lick her pussy." - Dragan Wende, brothel doorman, pimp and dealer in the all-new, reunified Berlin.

For some, the Cold War in Germany was a Golden Age.

There was a West Berlin and an East Berlin.

Life, at least for those in the west, was paradise.

Dragan Wende, a Serbian expatriate brothel doorman, pimp and dealer in Berlin, prefers to describe the occupied Germany in strictly anatomical terms: "America had the left side of the bum. The Russians had the right side of the bum."

Those lucky enough to reside on the non-communist side of the city lived La Dolce Vita - profiting both legally, and in Dragan's case, mostly illegally. According to Dragan, he and others like him were "the asshole inside."

Wistfully, but with a touch of bitterness over the eventual Reunification of Germany after the Berlin Wall came tumbling down November 9, 1989, he declares: "But we were living! I lived like Count Yorga The Vampire [the famed 70s B-movie character, an undead Baltic nobleman with a penchant for the blood of virgins]. We had everything - clothes, cash and girls. Everything was beautiful. Just look now!"

The "now" he refers to is the life he currently leads in the contemporary, reunified Berlin. Standing outside bordellos and earning a commission for every gentleman he sends into the dens of carnal delights is a far cry from those days in the 70s when he engaged in all manner of fraudulent activity and practically lived in all the hot nightclubs. Dragan worked for multi-millionaire playboy Rolf Eden and was instrumental in helping to build Eden's empire of discotheques, strip clubs and brothels.

In terms of his activities in such time-honoured traditions as black market profiteering and outright financial fraud in occupied and/or war-torn countries, Dragan was especially successful as he and his cohorts from the "old country" held the most valued passport in all of Europe, if not the world. As a Serb from the former Yugoslavia, he had easy access to both East and West thanks to General Tito's brilliant emphasis upon neutrality and the fact that neither communist nor democratic regimes required a visa from Yugoslav nationals.

Dragan had access to a revolving door for any and all illicit activities he chose to engage in. Alas, as (bad)luck would have it - two tragedies occurred. Number one, his partner in a $250 million swindle died, taking the final digits of a Swiss bank account with him to Heaven. Or Hell. Dragan held the first few digits, but without the rest, he was unable, nor will he ever be able to get his mitts on the dough. Number two tragedy - Reunification and the fall of Communism.

For millions, life would change for the better, but for many millions more (most of whom were not criminals), life changed for the worst. Dragan could, perhaps, have moved into more extreme areas of criminal activity - the gangsterism that permeates Eastern Europe in far more insidious ways than Communism ever did - but he never saw himself in those terms. To him, he conducted business and it was the business he knew best. He was a master hustler, but hardly a gun-toting thug.

For Vuk Maksimovic, a burgeoning cinematographer in Serbia, Dragan was this legendary Uncle who lived the high life in Berlin. Vuk's whole life was permeated with tales of this high-rolling blood relative. He wanted to get to know his Uncle Dragan. Armed with two cameras and two trusted colleagues, producers and co-directors Lena Müller and Dragan von Petrovic, Maksimovic and team fashioned Dragan Wende - West Berlin which is easily one of the most original, entertaining and penetrating documentaries about the wild days of pre-and-post communist society.

Capturing Vuk's visit with Dragan (replete with tours of the now-gentrified former hotspots of Berlin, life in the brothels and interviews of former partners-in-hustling), the film blends all of this with a series of brilliant films within the film - mock 70s-style docs detailing Dragan's past with the history of a vibrant, long-dead way of life.

This compelling approach to documentary storytelling is a strange and dazzling display of direct cinema that bounces between a cinéma vérité approach to the squalid reality of Dragan's contemporary life, punctuated by garish 70s archival footage assembled like a weird combination of straight-up TV documentary of the period and the 30s/40s-styled Warner Brothers montages (often fashioned by the likes of Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Wise).

Most of all, though, it is a documentary that feels very close to the world etched by John Cassavetes in his stunning crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie or, for that matter, in Peter Bogdanovich's magnificent adaptation of Paul Theroux's Saint Jack - but here, Dragan is a real-life version of the characters played by Ben Gazzara in both films - sleazy, charming, corrupt, living on past glories and yet, so very, very cool.

Dragan's constant refrain throughout the film is: "Man, I'd give anything not to work today."

Thankfully, he does. And when he doesn't, he gets his nephew Vuk to take his place as a brother door manager. All filmmakers, in one way or another are glorified pimps. This movie might be a first, though. The pimping is not only metaphorical, but literal.

This, of course, is the stuff of great cinema.

"Dragan Wende - West Berlin" is playing Sat, Apr 28 9:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 and Sun, Apr 29 4:14 PM at the Cumberland 2 during Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival. To get tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

THE PUNK SYNDROME - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto's Hot Docs 2012 Must-See #8

The Punk Syndrome (2012) dir. Jukka Kärkkäinen & J-P Passi **** Starring: Pertti Kurikka, Kari Aalto, Sami Helle, Toni Välitalo – Review By Greg Klymkiw

"Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day" is, without question, one of the greatest punk bands of all time. They are the unforgettable subjects of The Punk Syndrome, a breathtaking feature documentary that declares: "I demand your immediate attention or you die, motherfucker!" I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I had never heard of the band before. Now, I'll never forget them! Neither will you. This quartet of hard-core, kick-ass, take-no-fucking-prisoners sons of bitches pull no musical punches. They slam you in the face with repeated roundhouses - turning your flesh into pulpy, coarsely-ground hamburger meat. In true punk spirit, they crap on hypocrisy, celebrate a shackle-free life and dare your pulse not to pound with maniacal abandon.

The band is, of course, from Finland. This is the great land of the brown bear, the Capercaillie grouse and the nearly-extinct, but damned-if-they'll-go-down-without-a-fight Saimaa Ringed Seal - a country with one of the largest land masses and smallest populations in Europe that spawned the great glam group Hanoi Rocks, the brilliant hockey player Veli-Pekka Ketola and one of the world's greatest filmmakers, Aki Kaurismäki.

And now, Finland can boast of generating one the world's great punk bands, "Pertti Kurikka’s Name Day". With Pertti Kurikka's grinding lead guitar, Kari Aalto's powerhouse vocals, Sami Helle's muscular bass and Toni Välitalo on drums (a veritable punk rock Gene Krupa), this tight unit commands audiences with a power that borders on mesmerism.

Their songs - many of them ripped straight from Kurikka's diaries - take aim at government corruption, mindless bureaucracy and pedicures. Yes, pedicures!

Early in the film, Pertti Kurikka explains:
Writing a diary is important to me. I can release my anger. It is especially helpful to have a bad day. I’ll write in my diary that Pertti is a shithead, that Pertti is an asshole and that Pertti is a faggot and a shit-goddamn-asshole. Pertti will be stabbed. Pertti will be punched in the face. Pertti will be strangled to death.
Not every song the band sings spews venom, though. Giving a concert in a public square, the jaws of old ladies hit the ground, while young party animals hoist their fists in the air as the band extols the considerable virtues of mundane, but pleasant activities with the following lyrics:
It was a Sunday
I went to church
I had coffee
I took a dump
Three kick-ass chords and four glorious lines and we're hooked.

The movie follows the band from practising to recording, from jamming to performing, relationships with family, friends, fans and women. There are the usual creative differences between the band - some serious, and others, a bit more tongue in cheek. At one point, Kari complains to Kurikka, "When you write riffs for songs, don’t write such difficult ones. Write easy ones."

One of the most powerful sequences in the film, one that enshrines the picture as one of the truly great rock documentaries, is when the band plays a gig at a club in Tampere. The performance is mind-blowing and the audience is electric. The band sings:
Decision-Makers lock people up
In closed rooms
But we don’t wanna be in those rooms
Nobody looks after us
Nobody comes to visit us
What’s going to happen
To us orphans in those rooms?
Decision-makers cheat
Cheaters make decisions
They don’t give a shit
About us disabled
Decision-makers cheat
Cheaters make decisions
They don’t give a shit
About us disabled
In the dressing room after a truly intense performance, the band is triumphant. A beaming Kurikka declares, "This is as good as it gets".


A breathtaking cut to a shot worthy of Ulrich Seidl - one that captures a terrible beauty of the character-bereft building the band lives in, a blue sky and a magic hour sun.

And yes, this is a band that writes and performs songs from the pits of their respective guts, from experience - their unique experience in the world as mentally disabled men.

Brave, passionate and talented men.

And yes, mentally disabled.

And they are so cool.

How cool?

They record their first single on vinyl.

That's how cool!

Just like this movie!

"The Punk Syndrome" is playing Sat, Apr 28 9:30 PM at Cumberland 2, Mon, Apr 30 1:15 PM at Cumberland 3 and Fri, May 4 1:30 PM at The ROM Theatre during Toronto's 2012 edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Monday, 23 April 2012

LEGEND OF A WARRIOR - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto Hot Docs 2012 - Must See #7

Legend of a Warrior (2012)
dir. Corey Lee


Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw

There's nothing more exciting on film than movement. Yeah, sounds nuts, right? Movies are movement. Moving pictures. Motion pictures. The movies. What I mean, however, is when the camera captures a great dance number, or chase scene or fight.

In recent years, all three have succumbed to the need to supplicate the MTV-and-post-MTV generations with the utterly annoying ADHD-styled shooting and cutting wherein the camera never rests for more than a few seconds on some (usually) poorly composed shot and is cut montage-like to fake the rhythm (as opposed to utilizing montage to convey information, dramatic or emotional beats of a narrative and/or to provide juxtapositional imagery to convey a thought or idea).

This drives me completely up the wall. It's lazy filmmaking and denies audiences the true power and beauty of an exquisitely choreographed dance, chase or fight.

Luckily, if Legend of a Warrior had nothing else going for it (and it has plenty to offer), it has the distinction of featuring some absolutely terrific fight scenes (mostly within the context of training action in the gym) shot the way they should be - mostly in long, wide or medium shots and only punching in for anything closer when there's a reason to do so. Most of the time, the superb camera work hangs back and the editing is spare in all the right ways.

Given the film's title and the way I've chosen to lead my review, you might think I was describing a new action picture starring Jason Statham. Curiously, I watched Legend of a Warrior just after seeing Statham's newest fight-fest Safe. The latter featured some spectacularly choreographed action and fights that were almost completely ruined by a boneheaded "director" who had no idea where to place the camera and tried to create thrills by throwing as many closeups as possible with a ridiculous number of cuts. The former, however, was like a breath of fresh air.

Oh, and it's a documentary - with a simple and solid story (as opposed to Safe, an action drama with a simple story convoluted by sub-par filmmaking).

Director Corey Lee delivers a very personal documentary. Corey was born in Edmonton, Alberta. He's half Chinese and worries that both he and furthermore, his kids, need to discover their ethnic roots while they still have time to do so. The ticking clock is Corey's Chinese father. He and Dad have, for much of their life as father and son, been estranged.

Corey decides to not only change this state of affairs, but to document it on film.

His Dad is the legendary Frank Pang Lee, a great master of the martial arts who not only runs his own gym in Alberta, but was the personal trainer to the equally legendary Billy Chow, the reigning world kickboxing champion through much of the 80s and a stalwart actor in over 50 martial arts pictures (having co-starred with the likes of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Jacky Wu and among many others, Donnie Yen).

Frank's world famous self-designed White Crane technique is also the stuff of legend. Speaking of legend, Frank is 70 years old. I can't actually believe he's 70. This guy is in stunning physical condition and to see him in action is utterly mind-blowing.

Corey has not practiced martial arts for over twenty years, so he decides the best way to get to know his father and reclaim his Chinese heritage is to train with Dad. These sequences are absolutely brutal - not in a nasty violent way, but in the visual/aural combination of punishing, almost obsessive physical exertion with the naturalistic sounds of the gym itself.

Through the film, Corey definitely gets into better shape and his kung fu seems to be really progressing during the weeks of training. What's not quite happening is the father-son thing he's been hoping for. This only starts to happen once the two of them take a trip to Hong Kong together.

There's a scene in the film's final third which, in a drama, could have been machine tooled to pretty decent effect, but because this is a documentary, it takes on an added power. Suffice it to say that this aforementioned scene is tremendously moving. (I spewed more than a few geysers of liquid salt from my tear-ducts.)

Between training sessions and a glorious tournament sequence in Frank's gym, we get dollops of Frank's own story - his early years as a gang thug in China, the threat of communism and his eventual escape to Canada.

Once in the New World, Frank's fighting prowess comes in mighty handy when he works a few local Edmonton dives as a waiter/bouncer. His exploits at tossing innumerable tough customers reach far and wide and soon, tough guys from all over Western Canada and the far north make their way to Edmonton to try their luck at NOT being turfed by Frank. It's like Frank became the gunfighter with a reputation that always needed to be challenged by young turks who thought they were tougher.

Ah, Alberta! Lotsa beef, lotsa horses and plenty of rough customers straight out of a Randolph Scott western (and in this case, cross-pollinated with some chop-socky).

Many of the early years of Frank's life are rendered via some very evocative animations (still drawings - almost like anime sketches with a few simple moves). These are deftly integrated into the film and even subtly cut into live action moments when necessary.

For the most part, this is a truly compelling TV doc, but the two things that, for me, keep it from crossing into the scope of a "theatrical" experience is that some of the narration is far-too on the nose (especially in the early going) and secondly, that the movie delivers on the emotional arc of the father-son story, but lacks a good visceral punch. I was expecting, but never got, a final match between Corey and an opponent of equal calibre. The narration sometimes drove me a bit nuts - often delivering stuff we didn't need to know and if we did need to know it, I think it might have been better to just let the audience piece it together all on their lonesome. Much of the voice-over was of the "I think this, I think that, I hope this happens, I hope that happens" variety. It often came over dynamic visuals and I'd have preferred a more cerebral approach to conveying these feelings.

This, however, is not ultimately going to deter anyone from enjoying the film at all. It's a terrific story.

Interestingly, if I were the producer of the film, I'd be doing everything in my power to be selling the dramatic remake rights to a studio. There's a great martial arts movie with some heart here. A few embellishments wouldn't hurt, mind you - like a big match at the end of the movie, or better yet, add an underworld subplot requiring father and son to kick some gangster butt together. Or better yet, just try to make the movie without a studio. Get Chow Yun Fat to play Frank and concoct a good villain role and cast Jackie Chan against type in it. Toss Tony Jaa into the mix as Corey. And hey, set the damn thing in Edmonton. There's plenty of Ukrainians there. Toss some Uke mob action into the mix. George Dzundza would be a fantastic Uke mob boss.

Yeah, I know - that's a different movie, and kind of cheesy, but crazier things have happened in this gloriously nutty business.

"Legend of a Warrior" is playing Mon, Apr 30 9:15 PM at the Cumberland 2, Thu, May 3 1:30 PM at The ROM Theatre and Fri, May 4 4:00 PM at the Isabel Bader Theatre during Toronto's 2012 edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival. To order tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

AVATAR - Review By Greg Klymkiw - The Canknuckle-Headed Canuck James Cameron might feel like HE'S on top of the world, but for the rest of us, watching his films can make one feel like a bottom feeder

Avatar (2009) **
dir. James Cameron
Starring: Jake Sully, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Wes Studi, Giovanni Ribisi

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Given how little use I've had for the Kapuskasing, Ontario-born James Cameron, save for his genuinely great masterpiece of science fiction carnage The Terminator, I was prepared to hate Avatar. I don't, however, hate it at all. Much worse is that I am rather indifferent towards it. On the plus side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. On the down side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. In other words, the picture is neither a win or a loss, but a draw and in my books, a draw is definitely nothing to be proud of. In fact, there are times when a spectacular loss can be endowed with considerable merit in its folly alone.

Alas, this is not such a movie.

Of course, some might wonder why I have no use for Cameron, especially considering my penchant for genre pictures. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the big three are as follows:

1. Cameron somehow managed to lose the sense of humour he displayed in The Terminator. Humourless action movies are a dime a dozen and he's been strangely unable to crack a dark sardonic smile since Schwarzenegger uttered the famous words, "I'll be back."

2. Cameron utilizes (The Terminator excepted) lots of noise and bluster to generate suspense and excitement - pounding your pulse rate with wild cymbal-smashes and brute-force baseball bat blows instead of finely wrought and generated thrills that, in their planning and execution, he'd allow to slide slowly down his throat, burrow into the Cameron innards, roil around a bit in the bile until finally, they shockingly charge back up through the upper torso and uncontrollably spew globs of nasty undigested bits of viscous-enveloped matter into the audience's collective faces.

3. Cameron is earnest. Being earnest is bad enough when it belongs to dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who find teachers they can really relate to, but when it hangs like a constipated turd from the anus of an action director, it's virtually intolerable.

Avatar suffers from all three, but what made it SLIGHTLY watchable for me is that the bluster is finally more controlled, and therefore, ALMOST effective while the earnestness factor manages, at the very least, to generate some surprisingly interesting ideas regarding other life forms in the universe as well as some noodlings on the themes of American colonization, genocidal acts on behalf of corporate superpowers and the exploitation of natural resources

At the end of the day, though, the movie leaves me cold. I admire some of the craft, but I never have the feeling I'm experiencing a picture that truly engages.

One of the primary reasons it doesn't fully engage is that it's impossible to latch wholeheartedly onto any of the characters. If the movie had been endowed with at least a villain on a par with Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator (which gave that film something to negate the dour humourlessness of hero Kyle Reese played by Michael Biehn), then structurally and otherwise, Avatar might have gone the sort of distance it needed to go to achieve the same kind of relentless energy. Instead, we're forced to follow the slender tale of a paraplegic soldier whose mind melds with an avatar of an alien on a distant planet so he can join a scientific team to gather data that will allow an American corporate superpower to exploit the natural resources of the planet. While amongst the planet's blue-coloured indigenous populace, the soldier comes to understand the simple, spiritual and wholly environmental ways of these New-Agey warriors and joins them in battling the nasty, would-be conquerors.

The characters are finally little more than caricatures and ultimately, since most of them are jolly blue computer generated giants that are oddly not very pleasing to the eye, it's no wonder we're not too wrapped up in their struggle. This is not to say that caricatures in an action picture are always a bad thing, but there has to be some zip and oomph in the writing to give them the resonance that makes you bounce up and down in your seat with the same kind of giddiness that Schwarzenegger inspired in The Terminator. All Avatar has going for it is a humourless hero and heroine and a couple of villains who offer little more than mild amusement value.

Another disappointing element of the picture is the IMAX 3-D format itself and the fact that the true joys of 3-D are never exploited to their fullest because Cameron is so humourless and earnest that he doesn't actually let himself loose and wholeheartedly embrace the real reason anyone might want to see a 3-D picture. In the 50s, when 3-D burst on the screen, filmmakers went out of their way to throw things at the camera lens (or audience) so that it actually felt like a tomahawk or spear or some other projectile was hurtling right towards you. During the brief revival of 3-D in the 70s and 80s, it was more of the same - most notably in Paul Morrissey's film of the Andy Warhol production of Frankenstein (AKA Flesh For Frankenstein) where gooey, blood splattered guts dangled disgustingly before you. In recent years, 3-D has become so boring, so non-exploitative that most of the 3-D films are better off being viewed in flat 2-D. The exceptions to this are few and far between - the otherwise unwatchable Polar Express and the unjustly maligned Journey to the Centre of the Earth at least delivered on the roller coaster ride pleasures to be had in 3-D. Avatar is far too humourless and earnest to engage wholeheartedly in the deliciously exploitative pursuit of throwing stuff in our faces and/or taking us on harrowing amusement park rides. Cameron's more interested in using the 3-D technology to paint a portrait of a "real" fantasy world. This doesn't really cut the mustard since it's not a real world anyway - it all looks and feels computer generated.

This is not to say I have a problem with special effects LOOKING like special effects. The great stop-motion animation of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen look like effects - in fact, they ALWAYS looked like effects, even when I was a kid I knew they weren't "real". That, of course, never mattered as there was also a huge effort to create a world that existed ONLY on the silver screen while making us care and believe in ALL the characters such as those in King Kong or Jason and the Argonauts. When we watched those movies, we truly felt immersed in a cinematic land of spectacle, but the pictures worked because the stories themselves seemed infused with a heart, a core of human emotion and where the special effects were there to truly serve the STORY and CHARACTER.

With Avatar, it's the opposite of that. Cameron, always the technophile knot-head, cares more about the effects and visual razzle-dazzle than anything else (but in so doing forgets to genuinely knock us on our butts with what 3-D ultimately does best). This should have come as no surprise since it doesn't take much to remind me of the fact that in the appalling Titanic, so much time and attention was lavished on making the great ship sets as technically and historically accurate as possible, while spending no time or effort on making the characters SOUND, MOVE or even LOOK (beyond the costumery) like they lived in the Edwardian period (save for Billy Zane's mincingly delicious bit of nastiness and Kathy Bates' impersonation of Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure).

Sam Raimi is the perfect example of a truly great filmmaker since many of his pictures are laden with makeup, optical and/or digital effects, but they're all there in service of the movies themselves, as well as being infused with a delicious, nasty, funny pulp sensibility. Or how about the wonderfully insane Paul Verhoeven who dazzles us with his dark wit and delicious comic-book stylings? These filmmakers are certainly in direct contrast to Cameron who is, finally, a cold, calculating man of craft - a proletarian George Lucas, if you will. And on top of it all (and not the top of the world, by any means), Cameron is just one big square.

One thing in Cameron's screenplay for Avatar that I responded to positively was the world of the aliens and how a blend of the spiritual with physical allowed the blue goodies to live as one within their natural world - tethering soul and physiology so that all living creatures are tied together and not just with each other, but with the dimension of the afterlife and the ghosts of the past and the spirits of the planet's ancestors. This is such a lovely and intriguing element that it's sad to note that it leads us to one of the big flaws/holes in Cameron's screenplay. When the scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, pleads with the corporate boss to not unbalance the delicate balance of the aliens' world, it's simply all too predictable how the New World Order-styled nasty-pants played by Giovanni Ribisi rejects this. What didn't jell with me on this front was the fact that Weaver's character could and should have used her expertise in dealing with corporate lackeys to fund her research by trying to argue that the minerals the Americans are trying to exploit are, in fact, less lucrative than trying to get to the bottom of how the aliens live. This latter secret seems even more ripe for corporate exploitation and that this is NEVER even brought up is an idiotic omission.

As the story, such as it is, is crafted, this logical pitch on the scientist's part is all but ignored (or not even considered) by Cameron's script. One can only surmise that if it HAD been bandied about at the writing stage, the possibility of Weaver pitching the aliens' ecology as being far more valuable than the mineral deposits might have completely decimated the need for Cameron to annoy us with bluster and noise. And that, finally, is all Cameron is really all about. He's become a big, fat bore!

Avatar is cold, lifeless, humourless and only marginally better than Cameron's previous work in this genre (save, need we remind you, for the original Terminator). Like most of his films, it's aimed at all the fanboy (and fangirl) bone-brains who will get off on attending screenings dressed as their favourite characters. And indeed, the Avatar fans did arrive en masse to the theatres with blue paint smeared all over their faces and making all the Star Trek, Star Wars and Rocky Horror deadheads, adorned with Spock ears, Wookie fur and bustiers, look like Rhodes Scholars.

Happily, the picture's adjusted for inflation gross will still never begin to approach that of a REAL hit like Gone With The Wind. However, Avatar - no matter how you slice it - was destined to be one hell of a monumental hit by contemporary standards.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto Hot Docs 2012 - Must-See #6

The Queen of Versailles (2012) dir. Lauren Greenfield ***1/2

Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw

Jackie's a curvy blonde, with pouty lips, forever-and-a-day legs and Grand Canyon cleavage. In another age, this dazzling Miss Florida 1993 beauty queen would have fit most comfortably on the silver screen, clutching the arms of such celebrated fictional lugs as Moose Malloy, Johnny Prince or Fredo Corleone. In today's world, and in real life, she's the well-preserved 40-something trophy wife of America's timeshare Real Estate Mogul David Siegel.

If I didn't know otherwise, I might have thought that Lauren Greenfield's feature documentary The Queen of Versailles was, in fact, an intensely satirical mockumentary on consumer culture in America.

When we first meet the Siegel family in their gaudily ornate 26,000-square-foot Florida mansion, we're initially shocked at the tacky opulence of this cavernous love den that houses the 74-year-old self-made multi-billionaire Siegel and the insanely voluptuous woman who bore him seven children. We alternate between being agog and slapping our knees in raucous laughter.

As the film progresses, however, we get to like these people and their over-the-top lifestyle, especially when we're delivered considerable insight and background into their humble beginnings - their respective individual drive to achieve success. They've not been born with silver spoons hanging out of their mouths - they've both had to work for their right to accumulate. Jackie, in fact, put herself through university and earned an engineering degree before she began a modelling career. If they want to spoil themselves and their progeny rotten - all the power to them.

That said, there's something vaguely offensive and chilling when we discover that the nanny, who loves the Siegel children dearly, has not been home to the Philippines to see her own kids in years. Given her slavish devotion to this family, I kept wondering why the Siegel family, especially when things were going well, didn't think to cough up a drop in the bucket and bring her family over.

These occasional dark thoughts inspired by the film keep us anchored from completely rooting for these consumerist lovebirds.

And make no mistake - Jackie and David are clearly in love. It's especially poignant how the film captures them alone and together so intimately that we see how this is more than a marriage of convenience. She's no traditional goldigger and he's no wily, old dog looking for a trophy.

In spite of David's wealth when Jackie met him, it was a long and traditional romantic courtship and I have to admit there's something genuinely sweet about getting these details. And once they do get married, the movie verges on fairytale as we see them in photos and archival footage cavorting with presidents and movie stars.

We're also delivered the ins-and-outs of David's business empire. He's strictly independent and is the largest private owner of timesharing resorts in the world. Witnessing such dynamic entrepreneurship is, frankly, cooler than cool.

When things turn especially surreal is when we're introduced to the most insane aspect of this couple's American Dream. Inspired by the Palace of Versailles, the Siegels build the largest home in America.

It's 90,000 square feet and has 30 toilets.

'Nuff said.

Thankfully for director Greenfield, the financial crisis of 2008 hit everyone - including the Siegel empire. If it hadn't, the movie would definitely had worked as a curiosity piece, but when we start following this family as they are forced into a major austerity program, this truly becomes the stuff of great drama. The fairytale marriage starts to strain at the seams, the unfinished Versailles must be put up for sale and the banks begin to put the squeeze on David.

Once most of the servants are dismissed from the 26,000 square feet the Siegel family still lives in, the house turns into a cross between Jed Clampett's Beverly Hills mansion (transplanted back to the swamp in the Ozarks) and the bourgeois nightmare of The Exterminating Angel. The Queen of Versailles definitely shapes itself into some ultra-Bunuelian phantasm with dollops of Shakespearean tragedy.

This once spotless (albeit gaudy) mansion is now just plain gaudy and has so much filth piling up that I don't even want to imagine how this place started to reek like a cesspool. I believe this movie features more scenes involving dogs crapping and urinating indoors (as well as neglected pets just dying outright) than has ever or will ever exist.

Ditto for shots of doggie fecal matter lying about.

This is America!

Piles of dog shit soiling the crumbling remains of a once proud family of consumerist gluttons yields a movie that could easily swipe the tagline from Robert Altman's Nashville:

"The damnedest thing you ever saw!"

"The Queen of Versailles" is playing Wed, May 2 7:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1, Thu, May 3 9:15 PM at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Fri, May 4 8:45 PM at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema during Toronto's 2012 Edition of the Hot Docs Film Festival. To order tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Friday, 20 April 2012

THE WORLD BEFORE HER - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2012 MUST-SEE #5

The World Before Her … (2012) dir.Nisha Pahuja … **** By Greg Klymkiw

Enrolled in a fundamentalist Hindu camp for women, Prachi declares with icy resolve that she will kill (in self-defence) anyone who's against her religion. "I am not a Gandhi supporter," she asserts. "Frankly, I hate Gandhi."
Nineteen drop-dead gorgeous participants in the Miss India Pageant prep for a Bombay Times cover shot. "Oomph factor" is everything. "The look is sexy," says their coach. "Not bitchy."

What is the future for the young women of modern India? Is it adherence to thousands of years of subservient tradition or finding success through beauty? Is it deepening their love for the Hindu religion through rigorous paramilitary training or maintaining their ties to religion and culture while engaging in the exploitation of their sexuality? The chasm between these two polar opposites couldn't be wider and yet, as we discover in Nisha Pahuja's extraordinary and compelling documentary feature The World Before Her, the differences are often skin deep as parallel lines clearly exist beneath the surface.

All of this makes for one lollapalooza of a movie! Vibrant, incisive, penetrating and supremely entertaining, director Pahuja and her crackerjack team deliver one terrific picture - a genuine corker!

Seamlessly, and at times breathtakingly, we shift back and forth between the contestants of the Miss India Pageant training tirelessly within the walls of an urban Novotel for their shot at fame and fortune and the life of Prachi, firmly committed to a career - as she likes to call it - of serving her God, country and culture and preparing in the rural splendour of the Durgha Vahini training camp for young women.

Both groups of women must submit to the rigours of near-castigatory physical activity - albeit very different forms of it. Prachi learns the art of self defence - how to break a man's arm, how to stave off a knife thrust and turn the weapon against her opponent. The beauty contestants engage in punishing exercise regimens, not unlike the U.S. Marine-like maneuvers the Durgha Vahini women go through and are drilled in movement and precision: how to stand, how to walk. What our fundamentalists-in-training don't have to put up with are the hours of beauty makeovers - the most appalling of which are the burning sensations inflicted upon the beauty-queens-in-training during skin-lightening treatments. Ugh! As a fella, I even cringe at the thought of waxing.

For me, however, perhaps the most phenomenal footage in the entire movie are the differences in the relationships the two sets of women have with their parents. The mother and father of one beauty queen contestant are both so open, liberal, supportive and intelligent that their belief and pride in their daughter is deeply moving.

Prachi, on the other hand, is another story. Whenever her father opened his mouth my jaw kept thudding to the floor with such force and frequency, that if metaphor morphed into reality, I'd need to have major dental and periodontal surgery to restore it back into place.

Anyone who does to their kid what this guy does is an asshole. Yeah, yeah, yeah - it's a cultural thing! Big deal! Besides, a Hindu Holy Man I know had bestowed upon me the gift of an English translation of religious writings and I might be blind, but I sure don't remember anything in there like the following.

Prachi's evil clown of a father is seen sitting cross-legged, often with a smile on his face and his eyes raging with the fires of fundamentalism as he describes how he has been regularly beating his daughter for years in order to teach her right from wrong. Astoundingly, he admits that if his daughter had to engage in a Holy War and die for her religion, he'd be both happy and proud. He even infers that it would be okay in his books if his treatment was mirrored by a future husband.

When he proudly declares how he cured his daughter at age 12 from ever lying to him again, I came close to losing it completely. Daddy Dearest took a red hot iron from the coals and seared the flesh of his daughter's foot so that: (a) it would take weeks to heal and that every time she limped in pain, she'd remember how naughty it was to lie and (b) that the scar would be a constant reminder of her indiscretion.

Sadly, when Prachi is interviewed about these events, she seems totally at ease with this - going so far to admit that she prefers when he punches her to slapping her as she's able to withstand the pain from the former and not the latter. It must be all the military training she gets in the female terrorist camp.

As if I wasn't agog enough, Prachi admits that her father DESERVES to beat her because he let her live when she was born. You see, he considered murdering her as she was female, not male.

The film relates the stomach turning statistic that one million female babies in India are murdered every year due to the fact that male children are preferred. They're bread-winners. Women are, uh, parasites who need to be married off. Beyond some basic servitude, it seems they don't offer much anything else of value.

You know, I might have missed something, or maybe the English translation was off, but I really don't remember reading anything in the Hindu Holy Writings about murdering one's newborn daughter.

Prachi's story both parallels and contrasts wildly with the story of one beauty queen. Her mother was so disgusted that her husband wanted to murder their newborn daughter that she left him. The result, a beautiful, intelligent young lady who went on to claim the crown of Miss World India.

I have a few choice descriptive epithets for fathers like the aforementioned, but I'll allow my usual restraint in such matters to refrain from citing them here.

The bottom line is that The World Before Her is must-see viewing for everyone - men, women, sons, daughters - of all races, cultures, traditions and religions. My 11-year-old daughter watched the movie with me and I can't begin to express how profoundly it affected and touched her.

Even more extraordinary were her observations that: (a) the beauty pageant contestants were also beholden to men the way the "old-fashioned" women were and (b) that both sets of women were making their own choices in spite of being in a world where others want to make choices for them.

You know, I couldn't have said it better myself.

"The World Before Her" is playing Wed, May 2 7:00 PM at the Isabel Bader Theatre, Sat, May 5 9:30 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 and Sun, May 6 11:00 AM at the Isabel Bader Theatre during Toronto's Hot Docs 2012. For tickets, visits the Hot Docs website HERE.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

FINDING NORTH - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival 2012 - Must-See #4

Finding North (2012) dir. Kristi Jacobson, Lori Silverbush


By Greg Klymkiw
"It’s really all about patriotism. Do we envision a country where one in four kids are hungry?” - Jeff Bridges, Oscar-winning actor and founder of The End Hunger Network.
"The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business." - Chris Hedges
49 million American citizens have, at any given moment, no idea where their next meal is coming from. Many of those affected by hunger are children. The rates of unemployment and poverty are skyrocketing. So too is obesity and Type 2 diabetes - especially amongst children.

In Finding North, the important feature documentary by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush, a genuinely intelligent little girl sadly explains how poorly she is doing in school because she is so tired all the time.

AND hungry!

She has four siblings. Counting her parents, she is part of a family numbering seven. Their yearly income is just over $28,000 and GOD BLESS AMERICA, they do not qualify for government hunger assistance as they are making slightly more than the allowable maximum.

This film slams you in the gut - time and time again.

Bearing witness to a small town law enforcement officer was one of several instances in the picture that both saddened and enraged me. His job has been collapsed from the toil of three people into that of one. He's not only visibly exhausted, but because he has not had a living wage increase in years, he is forced to use a church-operated food bank in order to feed himself and his family.

The cinematic litany of wrenching emotion is evocatively rendered and delivers maximum impact where it counts - firstly on an emotional level and then as a call to action.

In this film I watched - trembling with a mixture of rage and compassion - as a young, intelligent woman tries desperately to feed her children nutricious food, to break the cycle of poverty and poor nutrition she herself suffered as a child, to go to university or college to better her situation and to get a job - to make something resembling a life for herself and her family. Then, when she does get a job and we see the new brightness in her face, the spring in her step and the feeling that she is, once again a contributor to society, the feelings of rage melt away and are replaced with a sense of hope.

This, alas, doesn't last for long. The wage is too low to provide adequate nutrition and yet, it's a few dollars higher than the amount allowed for food stamps which would allow for good quality food. What does this woman get for getting a job and leaving welfare behind? Another slap in the face from the government that only gives a shit about feathering the nests of its representatives and supporters.

Here my own thoughts turned to the notion of striking back. Just as quickly, though, the film - like any great documentary - attempts to find balance in the outrage it causes. We see a group of hungry mothers taking their plight to Washington. At last, people listen. Empowerment infuses the souls of these poverty stricken women. So to, do we the audience, feel an uplift.

Not for long.

The filmmakers might even want us to believe this form of citizen-based lobbying and activism is the best thing to do, but no matter how they might have wanted to spin this positively, the cameras do not lie. I watched, enraged, as one well-meaning politician after another delivers words of agreement and encouragement, their faces revealing only resulting ineffectuality, their words, seemingly truthful, but ultimately hollow.

The subsequent actions are even more infuriating. The money for an additional food subsidy comes from an already existing budget for food subsidy. This is the result, in spite of millions upon billions upon trillions of dollars dumped into corporate bailouts, military spending and worst of all, huge subsidies to corporate farming interests to generate cheap food product to yield cheap, unhealthy processed crap to keep the nation poor, hungry, stupid and subservient and to ensure even huger profit margins for the rich. Impassioned lobbying on behalf of regular folk inspires the government to rob Peter to pay Paul.

Or in this case, they steal from the poor to give to the poor. Christ, it reminds me of the Monty Python "Dennis Moore" sketch where the hero stole from the poor to give to the rich. (And to the poor, he gave lupins.)

These are but some of the real stories on view in Finding North. The film focuses upon these tales of hunger in America and punctuates the proceedings with a mesmerizing series of interviews, archival footage and salient stats and facts. The film moves with the pace of shark in deep water and attacks its subject with equal precision. Beautifully shot and edited, the craft here is of a very high level. We not only get great music from T Bone Burnett and the Civil Wars, but entertaining, fervent and very cool appearances by Tom Colicchio AND Jeff Bridges.

This is a slick, passionate and important picture. It needs to be seen by more than just the "converted".

Something MUST be done.

We can't trust the government to do the right thing.

We need to do it ourselves.

This film could be the call to action we all need - to inspire us not to take it anymore, to change the world. (And a note to Canadians: Let's stop being so goddamned polite and complacent whilst we snobbishly proclaim, "Well, that's in America. We're Canadian!" We're not immune to anything happening in this movie. We are, after all, governed by a psychopathic ideologue and his own army of inbred, gun-toting, bible-thumping, creationist versions of the Tea Party.)

See this movie! Recommend it to everyone - even people you love who might even be inbred, gun-toting, bible-thumping creationists. Maybe, just maybe, they too have it in them to say "Enough is enough!"

At least you can begin discourse where it counts - at a grass-roots level.

"Finding North" is playing Tue, May 1 7:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre, Thu, May 3 1:00 PM at Isabel Bader Theatre and Sat, May 5 1:30 PM at the The ROM Theatre at Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs site HERE. Visit the Jeff Bridges End Hunger network HERE.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

JEFF - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2012 - Must-See #3

Jeff (2012) dir. Chris James Thompson
Starring: Andrew Swant, Pat Kennedy, Pamela Bass, Jeffrey Jentzen


By Greg Klymkiw

If a kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, friendly and intelligent next door neighbour paid frequent visits in which he always brought delicious sandwiches lovingly made by his own hand and you eventually learned that he was not only a serial killer but a cannibal, chances are pretty good that you indeed had been munching happily on his victims. Mais non?

This, of course, is just one of many appalling thoughts haunting Pamela Bass and will, no doubt, continue to haunt her until the very last gasp.

Pamela's kindly neighbour, you see, was none other than Jeffrey Dahmer, the sociopathic nutcase who tortured. murdered, performed necrophiliac sex acts, dismembered and ate 17 young men in his Milwaukee apartment during his leisure time whilst working in a chocolate factory.

Upon his arrest, Dahmer was interviewed by detective Pat Kennedy who had to "befriend" the killer to pry a confession as well as get an accurate number of victims in order to identify them. Police work - GOOD police work - often requires more than just a strong stomach, but the talent to render Oscar-winning performances to get to the truth. Identifying the remains in a pre-DNA world was not an easy task and Kennedy needed to convince Dahmer that he was sincere, benevolent and just a good pal who wanted to help.

All that remained of most of the victims was a head in the fridge, skull trophies, preserved genitals, "meat" in the freezer and a huge, putrid vat full of body parts floating amidst copious globs of viscera and acid.

Chief Medical Examiner Jeffrey Jantzen was assigned the gruesome task of studying the remains of the victims to determine both their identities and causes of death. In one case, he made the shocking discovery that Dahmer had drilled into the head of a young man and performed a living lobotomy upon him.

Detective Kennedy would get these delicious nuggets from Jantzen and in his winning manner, suited more to a kaffeeklatsch than an interrogation room, he'd get Dahmer to calmly retch up the details. In the case of the lobotomy victim, Dahmer nonchalantly revealed that his goal was to create a zombie and furthermore, that he performed this surgery without any manner of mind-altering anesthetic.

Bass, Kennedy and Jantzen are the primary interview subjects of director Chris James Thompson's Jeff. He trains his steady camera on them and lets it roll. Their talking heads are more than enough to cinematically render a grotesque portrait of a serial killer in that point just before, during and just after his capture.

The subjects are simply, but nicely shot with crisp sound to allow for Thompson's clearly penetrating and well researched line of questioning and in turn, revealing three very diverse personalities who all deliver exactly what we need to get a sense of Dahmer's crimes and, most importantly, insight into the man himself.

The one key element in the film that, for me, keeps the picture from achieving a greatness is how Thompson stitches the interviews together with competently rendered dramatic recreations - so competent that they feel, at times, like bargain basement Errol Morris (though definitely a few cuts above the usual nonsense one sees in cheesy A&E-styled "documentaries"). While these scenes are delivered in a low-key format (with a genuinely superb performance from Andrew Swant as Dahmer) they unfortunately stick out like a whole vat full of sore thumbs.

Low key was the right way to approach the dramatic recreations, but it feels like Thompson would have been better off to trust his subjects and his own interview skills. He lets the movie luxuriate itself upon and within the three subjects - enough so, that I strongly feel he should have stuck to the simplicity of the talking heads with dollops of the archival material and other interviews he uses.

It's a testament to Thompson's clear ability to work with these three people and get the phenomenal footage he wrenches out of them that finally, Jeff is the most powerful rendering of the atrociously horrific crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer yet committed to film.

Sadly, it just misses the boat on greatness.

"Jeff" is playing Sat, Apr 28 11:30 PM at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema and Sun, Apr 29 10:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1 and Fri, May 4 9:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 during the 2012 edition of Toronto's Hot Docs Film Festival. For tickets, visit the Hot Docs website HERE.

Download and view the Electronic Press Kit of "Jeff" at the film's website HERE.