Saturday, October 31, 2015

Spielberg-O-Rama Vol. IV

For the publication of Spielberg-O-Rama Vol. IV on Bridge of Spies they'll be a launch on Thursday, November 5th at 7PM at Ronnie's in Kensington Market. I need to thank John Semley, Will Sloan, Alan Jones, Ethan Vestby, and Mitch Ariel again for contributing. Here's a sneak preview, the full articles are only available in print. Hopefully I'll see some of you there!


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review: The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul

The new book The Canadian Horror Film: Terror of the Soul, which is edited by Gina Freitag and André Loiselle, reimagines Canadian film history through the lens of terror. David Cronenberg might be at the epicenter of this gravitational pull, but he’s still surrounded by some considerable nightmares: From the first Canadian horror film Henry MacRae’s The Werewolf (1913), through the tax-shelter era with the likes of William Fruet’s Death Weekend (1976) and its sub-genre the forest slasher, to the adaptations of Patrick Senécal's Québécois horror novels and the Newfoundland eco-horror film Orca, all of the way through the avant-garde with R. Bruce Elder and Jack Chambers, and to Ottawa’s Lee Demarbre and his ode to Herschell Gordon Lewis in Smash Cut. There's a lot of frights to be had!

The book builds upon Northrop Frye’s premise on Canadian poetry, which is that it resonates “a tone of deep terror in regard to nature… a terror of the soul,” where “confronted with a huge, unthinking, menacing and formidable physical setting – such communities are bound to develop what we may provisionally call a garrison mentality.” The notion of Canadian identity and its ethos is reimagined through these roots in terrors, in the interval between external threat and internal dread.

Building upon Caelum Vatnsdal’s previous study on the subject They Came from Within and websites like Canuxploitation, The Canadian Horror Film legimitizes the subject by giving it an academic form. There are many serious studies on films like Cube, Ginger Snaps, Black Christmas, Pontypool, and Nelvana’s animation.

There are, of course, omissions that should be noted: How come there’s no mention of Denis Côté, who has always included horror film conventions in his work? Or how come Cronenberg’s most recent films, Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars, or his recently published first novel Consumed, are hardly mentioned? And I'm sure that people could think up some others.

But, regardless, The Canadian Horror Film accomplishes the impressive feat of being able to re-write Canadian film history under the shadow of horror and, in doing so, exposes it in a new light. This is especially in opposition to how often these type of low-taste films tend to be vilified by Canadian film critics and funding agencies. 

Along with the recent screenings of Canadian classic films like John Paizs’ Crime Wave (1985) and Julian Roffman’s The Mask (1961); or the publishing of Marcel Jean’s Dictionnaire des films québécois, David L. Pike’s Canadian Cinema Since the 1980s, and Tom Ue’s World Film Locations: Toronto; or the emergence of an exciting new generation of Toronto directors (Radwanski, Drljaca, Cividino), and Jean-Marc Vallée going into his prime; The Canadian Horror Film provides another great example of the richness and malleability of Canadian cinema. 

And the next stop? With Matt Johnson's eagerly anticipated Operation Avalanche coming out next year, it reminds us that it's best to dream big and to aim for the moon!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Roland Barthes and Positif

“And then there’s the Roland Barthes of the Fifties. The Barthes of Mythologies, who is writing a lot on the cinema, but from a very much ideological, and leftist position. Like when he’s writing on Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, Kazan’s On the Waterfront, and Visconti’s La Terra Trema. He really attacks Sacha Guitry. He is actually really opposed to the cinephile discourse of the period. He violently attacks Claude Chabrol’s Le beau Serge – the first official film of the French New Wave – in the name of a leftist position. He accepts a little its naturalism, but not at all its content and themes, of redemption etc. It’s a Barthes that is different from what we’ll see later. He isn’t at all synchronous with his times. Oh! But actually he’s closer to the early Positif, he would also contribute to Positif in a question form. He’s of a position that is more on the left for this period.” – Michel Ciment

Follow the link for a special episode of Projection privée on Roland Barthes, as well there was a 'Semaine spéciale Roland Barthes' on Hors-champs that’s well worth checking out.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Jean-Marc Vallée at the FNC: A Commented Projection of Ishii Katsuhito’s The Taste of Tea

Jean-Marc Vallée on Friday October 9th for the Festival du nouveau cinéma held a commented projection of Ishii Katsuhito’s The Taste of Tea. After a 30 minute delay in starting due technical reasons (the adjuster on both his microphone and the film weren’t working properly), a huge crowd walked into Cinema 1 at Cinéma du Parc for what turned out to be a very special night.

But Vallée’s special event was a little uncalled for. Why do a commentary on someone else’s film, and why at this year’s edition of Festival du nouveau cinéma? Why this bizarre Japanese film? Is it even a ‘DJ’ set or a Master class, as he described it? And, more to the point, was it even entirely successful?

The Taste of Tea… Tea… Dominique Fortier’s Québécois novel Du bon usage des étoiles about John Franklin’s 19th century voyage to North America, which Vallée is planning to adapt, has tea as a major subject – so could Vallée be preparing, and sharing, some of his inspiration for the film that he’ll be making in a few years? The answer is: no. The Katsuhito film has very little, if anything at all, to do with actual tea.

So why do a commented projection? Why right now? And why get a crowd to wait a lengthy period of time just for the minute details of the technical equipment to be set up properly and work to his requirements? The answer: For the beauty of the gesture. There was no real reason for Vallée to put on this event, except for his desire to experience the film in a social setting and to share it with his neighbors, friends and public. This was reason enough to put on the show.

Vallée’s commentary wasn’t too talkative (especially later on in the film), as he would let the scenes play out (the audience also had to focus on the French subtitles) before pointing out what he liked about it. But what he did say had a lot of meaning. For example, Vallée’s comments on Ishii Katsuhito were almost those of a self-portrait as many of the observations could also be used to describe himself. Vallée spoke of Ishii Katsuhito as a director of total liberty and experimentation, and with that, success and failure.

Vallée said one thing about The Taste of Tea that seems important: how he didn’t think it was perfect and how he thought some scenes, and the film as a whole, were too long. Vallée would add, in a humbling modesty, that he didn’t think his own films were perfect either. But the point was, how these flaws can contribute to the charm of a film. And through Vallée’s discussion of some of the film’s scenes and their duration (“I would have cut it here,” “this scene is 10 seconds too long” etc.), what comes across is a conviction in what’s visually essential to get to the heart of a scene, which can make a film come alive.

But why choose to do a commentary on The Taste of Tea? The obvious choices would have been Les bons débarras and The Ice Storm, two films that he’s publicly spoken highly about. Or with his upcoming Janis Joplin film to look at films around that similar topic and period like Almost Famous or Taking Woodstock. The answer: So not only is Vallée interested in the beauty of the gesture but also the gesture to surprise.

The Taste of Tea, which premiered at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in 2004, Vallée discovered at that year’s edition of the Fantasia film festival (around the time of the production of C.R.A.Z.Y.), and since then he has seen it over a dozen times. Vallée spoke of even meeting Ishii Katsuhito who told him about working on the animated fight scenes for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (it goes without saying that the animation and drawing scenes in The Taste of Tea are great too).

The connections between The Taste of Tea and C.R.A.Z.Y. are worth exploring since there many striking similarities between the two. The obvious connection is the emphasis on the family and the children and how through their very specific stories there can be something universal that emerges. There is also the films’ blend of fantasy and reality which give both of them their surrealist tone. The two directors also both edit their films in striking and poetic ways. But perhaps the most Valléeien aspect of The Taste of Tea is the character of the older brother and grandfather. The older brother in the film is a music-recording technician (which parallels Vallée’s own sonic perfectionism) and the grandfather was always testing his tuning fork. There’s even a psychedelic music video for a song about mountains sung by the parents which recalls Gervais Beaulieu passionately singing Charles Aznavour songs in C.R.A.Z.Y.

And there’s something Japanese about Vallée’s films in terms of their spirituality through his emphasis on ghosts, which in Japanese folklore are called Yūrei. These are wandering ghosts that still need to accept their situation – this can be seen in Japanese films as diverse as Ugetsu, The Taste of Tea and Journey to the Shore. And in the films of Vallée through the reappearance after death of Raymond Beaulieu (C.R.A.Z.Y.), Rayon (Dallas Buyers Club), Cheryl Strayed’s mother Bobbi (Wild), and most recently Davis Mitchell’s deceased wife (Demolition).

So much that was said throughout the two-and-half hours contributed to a better understanding of Vallée’s cinema and to Ishii Katsuhito’s mysterious film. Through this innovative commentary Vallée continues to explore his contemplation of cinematic images and their potential. Even though he wasn’t saying much by the end, as it progressed his voice emoted more as he was being affected by the film. And by the end as he was left only whispering a few key words, he was able to do it again: to invisibly put himself into a film. It’s one of his best audio commentaries, up there with the ones on C.R.A.Z.Y. and Wild (here’s hoping the rumored Café de Flore commentary one will one day emerge). Every movie should have a Jean-Marc Vallée audio-commentary track!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Toronto Invades Montreal ! (Festival du Nouveau Cinema)

How Heavy This Hammer, The Waiting Room and Sleeping Giant will be playing at the Festival du nouveau cinéma* in the upcoming week (October 7th – 18th) and there’s something validating about seeing these young new Toronto directors being highlighted.
Kazik Radwanski and Igor Drljača’s second film’s testifies to their improvements as filmmakers. After Tower and Cutaway, in How Heavy This Hammer Radwanski explores the middle age Erwin (Erwin Van Cotthem) as he goes through a life crisis. There are more characters, situations and confrontations than his previous film, which makes this feature more visually complex and interesting in its portrayal of depression and aimlessness. While in The Waiting Room, Drljača continues to explore the Yugoslavian diaspora through the story of Jasmin (Jasmin Geljo) trying to find work as an actor in Toronto as he balances his family life at home and abroad.
A couple of examples of their striking scenes: In How Heavy This Hammer the whole family is watching a movie in the living room as Erwin is sleeping. One of his two sons wakes him, which causes a fight that would lead to Erwin separating from his wife and moving out. The look of the two boys wanting to spend quality time with their father, the wife (Kate Ashley) wanting everything to work out, and the arrogance of Erwin, all which is illumined by the blue of the TV screen and with what sounds like a John Williams score, contribute to a very striking moment. In The Waiting Room, Jasmin is in an audition for the role of a thug. He repeats the scene with variations due to the director’s suggestions. And through his repetition what's on display is Jasmin’s work as an actor, the process of being stereotyped, and the resistance to it through Jasmin's use of his native language. It’s sub-story on a sound stage of filming a road-movie about the Bosnian War is another example.
Andrew Cividino’s first feature Sleeping Giant, which premiered at the Critic’s Week at Cannes, is about the experiences of three teenagers spending their summer in cottage country Thunder Bay. Its coming of age story through its emphasis on loss, disillusionment and melancholy captures something universal about growing up. Cividino’s directing style, which has been evolving through out his many short films, seems here to be fully achieved as Sleeping Giant is reminiscent of both Stand by Me and the films of Jeff Nichols.
And there are connections between all of these films: In The Waiting Room Jasmin’s son hits another kid playing soccer, which echoes Erwin’s violence playing rugby in How Heavy This Hammer. In Radwanski’s film the Toronto director Matt Johnson has a cameo (just like how he did in Diamond Tongues) which makes one further anticipate his upcoming film, Operation Avalanche. Another connection is how many of the technicians on the crews jump from each other's different projects.
There’s something really exciting about the Toronto film community and it seems to be precipitating towards getting more international attention. Some of the other directors include Sofia Bohdanowicz, Antoine Bourges, Daniel Cockburn, Simon Ennis, Clint Enns, Fantavious Fritz, Kevan Funk, Matt Johnson, Eva Kolcze, Calvin Thomas and Lev and Yonah Lewis, Luo Li, Rebeccah Love, Isiah Medina, Katrina Orlowski, Nicolás Pereda, Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson, Albert Shin and Blake Williams. Hopefully there’s interest for all of their work and that people start noticing them. The quality is there.

See also interviews with some of these directors : Interviews with Cinephile Directors.

* There are also two Philippe Grandrieux films, Meurtrière and Malgré la nuit, and a special screening of Ishii Katsuhito’s The Taste of Tea with a commentary by Jean-Marc Vallée going on.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Film Review : Journey to the Shore

Chimes sound as Mizuki walks, seemingly floating, through a room with mystic red lights and a wall overflowing with painted roses. The lights fade out as the man sleeping in a bed next to the wall enters dream world.

Fast forward to the next morning, and Mizuki wakes up in a daze. Where is she? The place seems familiar, but somehow different. She walks around, knowing the layout of the building but convinced that something has changed. As she loses her dizziness and becomes more aware of her surroundings, everything becomes clear; the building she is in has been long since dilapidated, the walls are crumbling beyond repair, and the man she saw last night was a ghost. Mizuki has been interacting with ghosts quite a lot lately. One such ghost is her late husband, Yusuke. He appeared to her after a mysterious three-year absence, then explained that he had died on a shore just after a boating accident. Yusuke asks Mizuki to accompany him to the place where he died. She repeatedly tries to ask him why, but he won't tell her the answer, instead he insists that on the way to his dying place, she joins him as he revisits people and places that were important to him during his lifetime. As Mizuki journeys with the spirit of her late husband, she gradually learns the deeper purpose of his return to the Earth realm, but will she have the power and the will to do everything that he asks of her?

The journey taken by the characters is absorbing and fascinating. Eri Fukatsu plays Mizuki in some ways closed off to the world around her, but in other ways almost too sensitively. There are times when the mask she presents to the world seems completely unemotional, yet there are times when she explodes with joy or grief. It is a compliment to Ms. Fukatsu that she can keep people absorbed during Mizuki's quieter moments, knowing that the emotional payoffs will eventually come.

Tadanobu Asano effectively plays the role of Yusuke (or rather, his ghost). He also presents multiple sides, but these manifest in the different sides of his personality that he presented to different people he knew. Mr. Asano has a seemingly intuitive knowledge of which parts of the character to present at any given time; in his own way, he is an equal to the emotional dramatics displayed by his female costar.

Meanwhile, the soundtrack perfectly encapsulates the juxtaposition between supernatural concerns and emotions that happen to the characters in the physical world. Sometimes it's mysterious, and sometimes it's all too real, but it never loses sight of its fundamental gentility even in the face of difficult moments.

In bringing Journey to the Shore to life (adapted from Kazumi Yumoto's novel Kishibe no Tabi), director Kiyoshi Kurosawa has brought us a masterpiece. The power of the film lies not only in its juxtaposition of issues present in the mind, the emotions, and physical reality, but in its insistence that the best way to understand each is to consider them part of the same element. Mizuki misses Yusuke (a part of her mind responsible for memories). She is meeting him again in the form of a ghost (which is occurring in physical reality). By observing him tie up loose ends from when he was alive, she gains the courage to confront parts of her own life that have bothered her. The result is an emotional release, as she is no longer disturbed by the worries that have plagued her... although the memory of her husband will never fade away.

- Oded Aronson

Recommended Movies : The Visit, Here's to the Future! and Hit 2 Pass