Saturday, 2 May 2015
TORONTO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL 2015 - Reviews By Greg Klymkiw - HIRSCH *****, CENSORED VOICES *****, DOUGH **, REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT *****, THE GO GO BOYS: THE INSIDE STORY OF CANNON FILMS ***, FORBIDDEN FILMS ***, A FULLER LIFE ****
Dir. Noam Gonick
Starring: Louis Negin
Review By Greg Klymkiw
John Hirsch was one of the world's most important artists and I can think of no greater tribute than Noam Gonick's Hirsch, a lovely, expressionistic docu-fantasy created in the grand tradition of Winnipeg's vital prairie post-modernist aesthetic. Hirsch is credited with founding the professional regional theatre company, the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) as well as revitalizing both CBC drama and the Stratford Festival. In particular, his work with MTC had a huge impact upon theatre worldwide by providing a model for regional theatre companies to aspire to and follow.
Though Gonick's films often find themselves focusing upon cutting edge outsiders in decidedly cutting edge fashion, here he brings his unique filmmaking voice to a tale that is as gentle and elegiac, as it is profoundly imaginative and deeply moving. (And Hell, one can't get more outside the box and cutting edge than a subject like John Hirsch.) Gonick frames this tribute to the grand impresario in a fictional setting in which a group of children find themselves exploring an old attic filled with the late Hirsch's memorabilia. One of the older boys suggests the attic is haunted by Hirsch's ghost, but he's quick to suggest that it's a benevolent spirit. A younger lad gets an opportunity to place a set of headphones on and listen to a reel-to-reel recording of final radio interview Hirsch gave before he died from AIDS-related complications at age 59.
As we hear Hirsch deliver a history of his life and philosophies, the children are infused with the overwhelming creative spirit of the attic and soon, Hirsch's words accompany a phantasmagorical transformation in which the space becomes a magical, creative playground of puppets, red curtains, gorgeous models, train sets and lantern projections springing to life.
We learn about Hirsch escaping Europe to Canada whilst his mother, father and brother perish in Auschwitz and then, his decision to settle in Winnipeg, a place so far away, nestled so deeply within a physically enormous country, that it's the only place he feels he will be safe. With only distant relatives left, he creates his own family, his own community of like-minded souls, discovers an amateur little theatre, learns everything he can about the world of the dramatic arts until finally, he establishes Canada's first professional regional theatre company. Its quality and reputation moves across borders and soon, many of the English-speaking world's greatest actors, directors, playwrights and technicians are tripping over themselves to work at the MTC.
The magic Hirsch's spirit creates is infectious - so much so that the children find themselves immersed in a world of complete make-believe. And so are we, yet the play is always tempered with Hirsch's lively storytelling. The filmmaking is at the highest levels of craft and the filmmaker has surrounded himself with a bright, rich team of artists to render gorgeous design (in all areas), exquisite lighting and camera, layered sound and every bell and whistle imaginable to create this indelible tapestry which betrays the film's (no-doubt) meagre budget. Gonick builds a gorgeous, bright, bold world of contrasts and eventually, the events of the film cascades into a gentle pillow fight which, in and of itself, transforms into a swirling, beauteous kaleidoscope of wonder and joy.
Like that kid who escaped the Holocaust so many years ago, clutching onto a suitcase filled only with his puppet theatre and toys of sheer make-believe, we can rejoice in both Hirsch's story and his lasting spiritual influence upon these young, creative minds. Hirsch's voice is beautifully rendered by one of Canada's greatest living actors, Louis Negin (last seen as Marv, the Bath Meister, amongst a cornucopia of roles in Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room). Gonick casts a delicious spell with this imagined interview which acts as an epitaph of inspiration, a film which, in 11 minutes, is a perfect gem worthy of the lasting impression and memory of the late Maestro John Hirsch.
Via Negin's extraordinary voice performance, Hirsch's final words in the film inspire copious tears. They are thus:
"To create sense out of chaos, all the labyrinths, all the funhouses, ghost castles, cellars, the attics, the moors and mountains and swamps, all these begin to form themselves into a landscape one is compelled to go back and examine."
We are grateful Gonick has been compelled to offer this landscape for us to always go back to and examine the joy Hirsch infused in generations of audiences, then, as in now, as in the future. I suspect that somewhere out there, Mr. Hirsch feels likewise.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars
Censored Voices (2015)
Dir. Mor Loushy
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Censored Voices might be one of the most profound anti-war films made in recent years. Though the backdrop is the 1967 Arab–Israeli Six Day War, the picture brilliantly transcends all contemporary controversies, acting simply and poetically as a testament to the madness of all war and the reality that it's the "people" who suffer as much, if not more than the armed forces.
A few weeks after the war, writers Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira conducted a series of interviews (on reel-to-reel tape) with numerous Israeli soldiers. These tapes were suppressed and/or heavily redacted by the Israeli government for over 40 years until filmmaker Mor Loushy accessed the unexpurgated audio to listen intently to these young men, to hear their thoughts on what they'd just been through.
Blending news footage, archival materials and using the audio tapes as narrators, Loushy provides a shocking, surprising and deeply moving experience. Tracking down some of the original interviewees, all now old men, Loushy combines the aforementioned with gorgeously lit/composed shots of these former soldiers - listening silently to their own voices from 1967. Their voices from back then, reveal the unexpected. Their faces reveal all.
This profoundly and decisively victorious war is how Israel laid claim to Gaza, the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank. Decimating the enemy's military forces was a veritable cakewalk, but the real war endured by the Israeli soldiers turned out to be, at least for many of them, a much more haunting, tragic and frustrating experience than the fields of battle.
In the historic interviews, we hear men - young men some 40+ years ago - who are deeply saddened, confused, conflicted, disappointed, if not outright shocked that they found themselves at war with civilians. It's as if they were front-line pawns, but not as cannon fodder as so many young soldiers in war are. While the trauma is still fresh in their youthful minds, we hear devastating stories of non-military personnel being gunned down, beaten, tortured, corralled and forced to leave their homes.
The soldiers, it seemed, were no longer fighting-men, but glorified cattle herders.
In reality, they were not soldiers, they were occupiers.
The men are expected to rejoice over the return of many historical places to Israel, but they can't. They are privy to the suffering of innocent people, even forced to be the instruments of the dehumanizing process of destabilizing and forcing tens of thousands of people to flee and become refugees.
As one of the men states, this has nothing to do with God and/or The Torah. These are, after all, physical structures which have been won. There's nothing in Judaic culture about the holiness of a place. It's the human spirit and God that are Holy.
So many of these stories are heartbreakers - especially since director Loushy leads us into the film with the happy, hopeful sense of statehood and the determination of a people to reclaim what was once theirs so many millennia ago. The skill, training and superiority of the Israeli armed forces is simply a forgone conclusion. The strategy and surprise Israel employed is also a thing of beauty (albeit a terrible beauty). In fact, we get a sense that the war is a masterstroke of military genius and might. It's all the shining stuff of good, old fashioned boys' adventure. The qualities of the sublime dissipate quickly, however.
The questions many of the men ask do indeed resonate in a contemporary context. They wonder, so long ago, how a nation (Israel) constantly under attack, surrounded by enemy states can ever really and truly be a nation? Alternately, others feel that a nation which must occupy in a kind of perpetuity can also never truly be a nation.
Hearing these sweet, young men facing such complex moral dilemmas so soon after a victory they should be celebrating, forces them (and us) to confront realities that have always been at the core of war. To hear these voices juxtaposed with actual footage from the period, but most evocatively, against the silent faces of the old men who listen to the sound of their own voices has a strong element of poetic tragedy coursing through the entire film.
Though the current conflicts between Israel and Palestine can't be ignored in the context of Censored Voices, Loushy seems far more interested in capturing a reality that ultimately faces all of us, especially once we recognize and accept that a Six Day War, a 60-day war or a six-year war - at any time, any where - is still war and that the true casualties of war are the innocent on both sides of the equation.
Hearing the story of Arab men - civilians, no less - standing with their hands raised in the hot sun for hours on end would be despairing enough, but to hear that they've been filling their shoes with their own urine in order to have something to drink, is infused with the kind of sorrow we, as an audience, can never forget. Clearly, the soldiers don't forget this either, as they recount how these same Arab men, learning they'll be given fresh, cool water, collapse in front of the soldiers, kissing their feet in gratitude as they also retch and vomit upon the soldiers' boots. This sequence (and so many others like it) grind our collective faces into the realities of both war and nationhood.
Occupation is not nationhood. It's merely the residual blight of war - one in which we are all guilty of, and as such, a party to the inherent shame of it all.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars
Dir. John Goldschmidt
Starring: Jonathan Pryce
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Oy! A perfect movie here is in store for all the Bubbies and Zadies in the audience. God of Abraham knows, my own late Mother, rest her soul, would have loved this movie. (And actually, I suspect the Zadies won't be too thrilled with it, but they will acquiesce to their husbandly duties to accompany their spouses to this one.)
Dough is a perfectly dull and competent movie, probably best enjoyed on a small screen where expectations are much lower. A 60-something widowed baker (Jonathan Pryce) keeps his doors open in the old neighbourhood which is rapidly changing so much that he's losing all his regular customers to death or retirement to old folks homes in burbs that are far, far away. When his longtime bakery assistant moves on to bigger money at a rival bakery, our curmudgeonly old hero is in desperate need of a new apprentice baker. Well, as luck would have it, the kindly African immigrant-lady of the Muslim persuasion who sweeps his floors, desperately wants her son to find a job so he'll no longer be tempted by a life of crime. More luck abounds when Sonny Boy is up for a job with a local drug dealer. However, the dealer requires the lad to have a full-time "day job" to act as a cover. Well, isn't this all just peachy.
Thank the Lord that Jonathan Pryce is in this movie and doesn't embarrass himself too much during these sickeningly twee and predictable proceedings.
To add further blessings to this situation, the young lad of the dope-dealing Muslim persuasion, accidentally drops a whack of wacky-tabakky into the bread dough. My God, is this a sensation. Jonathan Pryce's bakery becomes popular indeed. All the usual conflicts and tribulations spin into motion and eventually, everything works out perfectly, especially the divides twixt Jew and Muslim, youth and old age and individuality versus conformity.
It's enough to inspire Peter, Paul and Mary to traipse into the cinema and lead the assembled in a rousing rendition of Kumbaya. Excuse me whilst I look for an air sickness bag.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ** 2 Stars
Requiem For a Heavyweight (1956)
Dir. Ralph Nelson
Scr. Prd. Rod Serling
Starring: Jack Palance, Keenan Wynn, Kim Hunter
Review By Greg Klymkiw
When Rod Serling, the Jewish kid from Syracuse, New York became the King of Live Television Drama for Playhouse 90 in the 50s (and later, the immortal Twilight Zone and Night Gallery), his primary interest was telling two-fisted, socially-conscious tales of men on the battleground of life. Decidedly two-fisted was his script Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Solidly directed by Ralph Nelson, Serling etched the story of boxer Mountain McLintock (Jack Palance), a former contender for Heavyweight Champion of the World who is so punch-drunk that the Boxing Commission doctor informs his manager Maish (Keenan Wynn) that he can’t allow Mountain to fight anymore. Maish is devastated. He’s secretly placed a bet against Mountain with the mob, betting his boy will fall in the third. Alas, for Maish, Mountain takes seven rounds of punishment and Maish is into the mob for thousands of dollars.
Mountain is at wit’s end; boxing has been his whole life. When he visits an employment office he pours his guts out to a sympathetic job counsellor (Kim Hunter) who sincerely believes Mountain can contribute to society working with kids in the field of athletics.
Maish, however, has other plans for our hero. He decides to commit Mountain to a series of pathetic wrestling matches. It’s easy money, but hardly a dignified way for a former heavyweight contender to earn a living.
Thanks to both Serling’s brutal dialogue and Jack Palance’s visceral, moving performance, Requiem for a Heavyweight is extremely harrowing. Mountain faces a life drowning his sorrows in booze and trading exaggerated fight tales with other punch-drunk (and just plain drunk) former boxers. We’re forced into Mountain’s perspective as he peers through a beer glass into a mirror that shows how the rest of his life could be spent. It’s a story of exploitation, loyalty and finally, seeking a way out, and so doing, finding both redemption and a new future.
As dark as it is, Serling deftly wends his way to an ending replete with hope – it’s neither cheap, nor shoehorned. It’s perfectly natural, and for once, we get a story that has its cake and eats it too – dragging us through muck, but subtly pointing to a glimmer of a new life. There’s definitely a slight ambiguity to it, but by the end, we’re grateful that Serling has not drowned the heavyweight in complete and total despair.
There is, at least, a chance to clamber out of the pit, and that, ultimately, is worth its weight in gold.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5 Stars
The Go Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films (2014)
Dir. Hilla Medalia
Starring: Menachem Golan, Yoram Globus
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Golan and Globus were one of Israel's most successful and beloved filmmaking forces. After a series of successful domestic films (Myself, I was always a fan of their delightfully cheesy trifle, the 1974 musical version of Kazablan), the lads moved into pure exploitation cinema with their company Cannon Films.
With stars like Chuck Norris, Jean Claude VanDamme, Charles Bronson and Dolph Lundgren, these guys ruled action cinema throughout the 1980s (as well as other genre hybrids like teen musicals and sex comedies). Somewhere in there, they actually made a terrific picture called Runaway Train with Jon Voight, but this was surely an aberration.
Medalia's straightforward documentary charts the dynamic duo's early beginnings, their glory years and eventually their decline and eventual split. Both men are terrific subjects, offering plenty of great stories about the movie business and since, like the best teams, there's a fire and water element to them, we're subject to both humour and sadness.
And yes, there's a melancholy to the film's final third, but it's genuinely moving and the film offers a unique inside glimpse into the actual personalities of two men who held the world in the palms of their hands and eventually watched it slip away.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** 3 Stars
Forbidden Films (2014)
Dir. Felix Moeller
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Felix Moeller who brought us the interesting, though occasionally paint-by-numbers documentary Harlan – In the Shadow of Jew Süss, is back with this expansion on the themes he previously explored in his film biography of the notorious Veit Harlan who generated one of the most vile pieces of anti-semitic cinema in Nazi Germany. Here, the focus widens to include many other forms of Nazi film propaganda. We learn how much of the nitrate stock elements are contained in a bunker-like vault to protect them from both sabotage and the potential of the highly flammable materials to level several city blocks.
The films, in other words, are incendiary - in more ways than one - as Moeller's documentary proves. Most of the movies are banned, but many of them have been getting special moderated showings and Moeller includes interviews with a variety of academics and captures a rich variety of the moderated conversations in theatres where horrendous films like The Eternal Jew are shown. There are also detailed analyses of how the Nazi propaganda works throughout a myriad of films - not just anti-semitic, but anti-communist, anti-Polish, anti-British, etc.
Supported with generous clips, there's plenty of eye-opening material, but like Moeller's previous work, there's not much in the way of voice or personality to his presentation of the subject. It feels like a competent TV documentary on a very important issue. Someday I hope we get a truly great filmmaker to generate an epic documentary on this period of propaganda - something that could have the oomph and scope of Martin Scorsese's brilliant documentaries on cinema like A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies and My Voyage To Italy.
Until then, Forbidden Films will have to suffice.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** Three Stars
A Fuller Life (2013)
Dir. Samantha Fuller
Starring: James Franco, Bill Duke, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Wim Wenders, William Friedkin, Jennifer Beals, Constance Towers, Buck Henry, Tim Roth, Mark Hamill, Kelly Ward, Perry Lang, Robert Carradine,
Review By Greg Klymkiw
I've always loved Samuel Fuller, but it wasn't until the TIFF Cinematheque unveiled a full retrospective of Fuller's work a few years ago that I realized how few of his movies I'd actually seen. Like a psychopath I bought tickets to every single one of his pictures and went, week after week to bask in the glory of this genuine maverick. I remember that as the retrospective of 20+ films ploughed on, many of the screenings were more sparsely attended than the opening weekend of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss.
I'd look around at every screening and soon got to recognize a few faces - a select few who, like me, were there for every single film. Soon, we'd acknowledge each other with silent nods. We were the Chosen Few - those who sat there for every film and thought about all the assholes at the opening weekend. It was as if we collectively sneered at those inaugural packed houses and thought, "Yeah, any asshole can come see Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, but where in the fuck are you for Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street?
Or The Crimson Kimono?
Yeah sure, many of you assholes came back for The Big Red One reconstruction and Pickup on South Street, but you're not here for Merril's Marauders or The Baron of Arizona or his two greatest pictures, Park Row and Steel Helmet.
We are The Chosen.
A Fuller Life is pretty much a dream come true, a complete and total joy for the Fuller Chosen. It begins with a prologue in Sam's magical cluttered office as his daughter, director Samantha Fuller, slings an old army rifle over her shoulder and slowly carries her lithe form (Yup, she's a babe!) through the dusty rows of books, papers and memorabilia to tell us what treats are in store for us. They all sound great, but the one dog bone for us Fuller-loving dogfaces to chew on is the news that Samantha found 100 reels of 16mm film under a desk in the office, all of which feature never-before-seen footage Fuller shot on the front lines as an infantryman during World War II.
Samantha ends her sweet prologue informing us that every word from here on in will have been written by "Sam Fuller, my Dad!"
And it's a wonderful journey. Samantha has gathered together an amazing group of Fuller colleagues and admirers to read carefully selected passages from Sam's magnificent autobiography "A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking". His glorious writing is accompanied by a rich bonanza of film clips as we hear the tale of the feisty little Jewish kid who grew up on the mean streets of New York where, from age 12, he became a paper-hawker, then copy boy and finally, at age 17, the youngest crime reporter in the history of journalism.
He broke a myriad of amazing stories and once he went freelance, he was able to travel America and write stories about a myriad of topics, including the insanely brave act of attending a secret Ku Klux Klan meeting in the deep South - not the safest place for a young man of the Jewish persuasion. We learn how he ground out pulp novels and screenplays, then, gave up a mounting career in Hollywood to answer the call to arms during World War II.
At age 29, he enlisted in the infantry where he became a regular "dogface" in the Big Red One. He was older than most recruits, but he survived the most harrowing experiences in a variety of missions throughout Africa, Sicily, Belgium, Czechoslovakia and Normandy. Yes, Normandy, for God's sake. Sam Fuller was on the beaches during D-Day and even more horrifically, he was present for the liberation of a concentration camp wherein his film footage became some of the most important work to detail the atrocities of the Nazis (the fictional rendering of this in The Big Red One is still one of the most deeply moving sequences in all of film history).
Highly decorated with the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, Fuller went back to Hollywood and began to direct pictures. 23 pictures in 16 years! Astounding! Here he favoured low budget work to keep tampering to a minimum. His work is never less than electric - it's visceral, pulpy and infused with a kind of reality and life experience that's seldom been matched in the cinema.
The cherry on the ice cream sundae that is A Fuller Life are the many evocative readings of Sam's words. A handful, like James Franco and Robert Carradine, fall a touch short - but My God! - the readings of Bill Duke, Mark Hamill and Kelly Ward are extraordinary. Happily, the readings of women, Jennifer Beals and Constance Towers, blow us away completely and it's nice having filmmakers like Joe Dante, Monte Hellman and William Friedkin offer their verbal styling to the mix.
By the end of the film, it beats me if any of it will work for non-Fuller fans - I think and hope it will, but for the Chosen, I can guarantee that A Fuller Life is everything one would ever ever want.
I'm convinced Sam himself would be deeply proud of his little girl.
Hell, I know I would be.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: **** 4 Stars
The 2015 Toronto Jewish Film Festival is one of the coolest events in the city and I urge you to attend as many pictures as possible. For further info, visit the festival's website HERE.