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Wednesday, Sep 16, 2009
In his third installment, Stuart reviews the hotly anticipated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a great documentary on Daniel Ellsberg, and new films from Todd Solondz (yuck) and Werner Herzog (yuck, but in a good way).
Life During Wartime (dir. Todd Solondz, 2009)

Todd Solondz’ new movie often feels like it is little more than a mash-up of his previous films. It even opens with a scene that is lifted almost wholesale from Happiness (1998). And, just like they did in virtually everything he has done before, pedophiles and other “perverts”, unhappy middle class white people, sexually confused children, and a generally mocking tone abound. At his best, Solondz is a real auteur, a singular observer of an alienated America, of an America filled with weirdos and lonely souls, longing for comfort and finding little. Certainly, the characters he explores in his latest represent some of the darkest he has yet drawn up: an incestuous father fresh out of jail (Ciarán Hinds), a lonely drug-addicted mother (a startlingly good Allison Janney), a curious and desperate dork of a kid (Dylan Riley Snyder), a pathetic barfly searching for escape through sex (a startling Charlotte Rampling), and a mousy woman (Shirley Henderson) who’s haunted by the men she has driven to suicide (Michael K. Williams, Paul Reubens). But, at his worst, Solondz relies on mockery, poking fun at these unfortunate characters without ever allowing us to fall in love with them. With each passing minute in this frightening little film, one finds oneself disliking the characters more and more, and finding the script to be uninterested in changing our view. This has the bizarre effect of leaving little reason for us to try to make sense of their predicaments, or to empathize with their despair. Throughout, the ostensible theme of forgiveness runs through everything like a bulldozer: can we forgive a terrorist, or a pedophile? Should we? And even if we do, can we/should we ever forget? Solondz may be a lot of things, but he is never subtle. This should have been enough to work with, but he muddies the waters with a hamfisted attempt to connect this “forgive and forget” theme to the issue of US troop withdrawal from Iraq, confusingly suggesting that if you do a bad thing and then steal away (“cut and run”) you make things worse. Well, maybe. But, really?

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Tuesday, Sep 15, 2009
In this second installment, Stuart Henderson reviews films from Michael Moore, Terry Gilliam, Atom Egoyan, and Ricky Gervais. Also, he mostly dismisses something called "Bitch Slap".

Navigating through a major international film festival is never easy. First of all, it involves a great deal of planning if you intend to see a lot of stuff. The Press and Industry schedule for this year’s fest is a complex grid of competing screening times, multiple locations, and frustratingly few showings of key films. Many of the movies that everyone wants to see are playing only once in theatres not quite big enough for all of us to get in. There are, in fact, two lines for many of the movies: one for the Priority Press (which means, sort of by definition, not me) and one for the Other Press (including a correspondent for the Huffington Post who was decidedly nonplussed about finding herself there, and who made embarrassing noises about it, like, in front of the rest of us, as if she didn’t realize that what she was upset about was that she was being treated just like the rest of us, all of which led to an awesome moment when a youthful festival representative came over to deal with her and admitted that she wasn’t familiar the HuffPo. “Canadians have never heard of the Huffington Post!” the critic responded, indignant and amazed. “No, I have never heard of it.” Yeah!) And so but anyway you have to wait in line a lot, and thus you have to plan to be at screenings long before the scheduled start, which means that you can’t safely bump from one show right into the next. Though I have, so far, been able to get into everything I’ve lined up for, I certainly haven’t been able to see everything I wanted to see. I mean, one of the theatres is a subway ride away from the other two!

There are two basic ways to approach a film festival. On the one hand, you can go to a fest with the intention of seeing every major film that stars lots of famous folks and which will invariably set you up for the big releases for the next few months (which, for reviewers, is good because a head start is nice). On the other hand, you can go to a fest planning to see only little movies which might not find a distributor, and thus may never again play on the big screen, in the hopes of discovering some unwashed gem. This latter option happens to be the “cool” way to go to a fest, since all I have overheard from “cool” looking film people is how they didn’t go to see some Hollywood flick because they can “see that anytime” and instead watched something weird, quirky, and interesting, that hasn’t got a hope in hell of being picked up for distribution. And, while I am drawn to that approach, I am also acutely aware that the former option provides the best possible chance of catching Golden Globe and Oscar stuff before the rest of the world gets in there, which is kind of thrilling. Anyway, there are actually three ways of approaching a film festival, since you can also just plan your days around what stands out when you thumb through the program, and then do the math to make your day work time-wise. This is what I decided to do. I was told by some guy when I said that I sat through Jennifer’s Body instead of seeing a semi-obscure French film (that he adored) that I was going to “regret” this approach. Film people can be very weird.

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Monday, Sep 14, 2009

The Toronto International Film Festival, now in its 34th year, is a massive media gongshow that takes place in my hometown, right around the corner from my house. I get to bike to my first screening in the morning. I take lunch breaks and meet my wife and son for little walks between movies. I don’t have to sleep in some weird sterile hotel room, staying up late because I get to watch TV in bed which, for some reason, I always seem compelled to do. I don’t have to eat every meal at fast food joints (which means I don’t yet feel like a bag of dump, though all I have done for three full days now is sit in a dark room). And, finally, I can share in the whole, admittedly intoxicating, irrepressible thrill of seeing stars as they walk down my streets, the streets I’ve been walking along past nobodies and whocareses for my whole life. I mean, if I saw a celeb in New York, would that be weird? But, when George Clooney or Jennifer Connolly comes sliding by, all graceful and elegant and not-quite-human, I dunno. It just feels, electrifying. Is that lame? Probably.

Truth is: I haven’t actually seen celeb one this year. (Last year, I did way better. I even chatted with Tim Robbins. Well, the truth is that I actually had an astoundingly unnecessary conversation with him since the poor guy was just trying to get a drink and I accosted him, all 5’8” of me, and he, who is much closer to 18 or 19 feet tall, had to lean down so far he was basically assuming “the position” and looking for all the world like a big storky bird bending over to pluck up a teeny worm (me), and all so that he could be polite to this random dude who felt the unstoppable urge to waylay him. Also, I bumped into a guy I recognized from a car commercial.)  Instead of star-annoying, I have actually been watching films this year. As I sat down to write this, your first instalment of a five-part series of reviews and randomness from your humble(ish) correspondent, I had already sat through 12. By the end of the ten day festival I will have seen about 30. Dear God.

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Saturday, Mar 21, 2009
Director: Wyatt McDill; Cast: Justin Kirk, Terryn Westbrook, Sam Rosen; Runtime: 85 minutes

At what point of “meta” does it all become one giant tiramisu of bullshit? Of course, I can’t delve too pointedly into that question without revealing the Mouse Trap tricks and plots turns of Four Boxes. What I can say is that it appears to be a generational satire built around the story of two internet liquidators (people who sell off the junk of the dead on eBay) who discover a mysterious website called Four Boxes. Ostensibly, the site used to be the website of a slutty exhibitionist woman who moved out and kept the cameras in for the unsuspecting newcomers. What follows is the morality play of three inter-fucking friends (I see a trend) who watch what appears to be torture, murder, and intricate terrorist plot unfold.

Four Boxes moves at the indie thriller pace that it should and Justin Kirk (of Weeds fame) makes a credibly brooding lead. But several of the satirical gestures either grate too much or make the viewer question whether the writer is satirical or envious. I don’t hang out with a lot of people much younger than I am (full disclosure: 35), but do the people in their mid-twenties, who are supposed to be represented here by people clearly older, really speak in instant messaging speak? It’s a travesty of content-free exclamation whose abbreviations only accentuate its scarcity. It’s difficult to sit through and seems more of a worst-case scenario than a lingua franca of the young ones. It reminds me of the vicious backbiting against the valley girls, whose dialect was also a slang-ridden avoidance of depth. But how many of us actually ever met a valley girl? It’s possible to be so vehemently critical that you give the object of criticism an easy out on the caricature clause?

Many of the themes that run through Four Boxes merit exploration. I think it’s true that normal existential angst has been medicalized to the point where having passion is itself a pathology. But is that purely a function of too much internet and not enough face-to-face? The characters are the tech-savvy undead: On cell phones, using webcams, checking their social networking sites every five minutes, and hollow in a way that deserves to be addressed less flippantly. “Life sucks. Life really sucks,” seems to be as close a summary sentiment as we can get in the film. But why do the characters have such deep disconnections from empathy in their acceptance of violence, suffering, and sexual disconnection. There’s “kid’s today” and there’s “Ted Bundy” and while I personally feel like the greatest achievement of the generation after me so far as been the Lolcats, I’m not willing to write them off as collectively lost. Nor are any of the film’s cultural critiques confined to any particular cohort. Traditional work, marriage, kids, death patterns in the American social experience have been disrupted for decades by everything from the birth control pill to gay rights. I guess I just don’t ultimately understand what Four Boxes is critiquing or saying or whether its simply trying to capture a zeitgeist and make fun it. But it does grow tiring having to create that much context for the meaning on the screen. I don’t mind working for a movie, but I gotta get paid.

In a certain sense, there’s probably enough pay off here to make Four Boxes worth watching. It has its creepy moments, like the grainy, furtive webcam movements that suggest untold mass terrorism. Despite characters that dissolve into characterizations, it’s difficult to pry yourself away until the final fade out. The ending is pure punchline; I had to grant the filmmakers the last laugh with a twist that no one would have predicted. But good satire needs much more than just an unforgiving eye; the best satire is both diagnosis and cure, a window into a different way by tweaking the excesses of the present. In the end, I don’t know who the film is talking to or what it’s taking about; the rest is just an Escher stairwell into pure speculation. That’s not my job. 


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Saturday, Mar 21, 2009
Director: Alex Vlack & Damani Baker; Cast: Bill Withers, Dr. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Sting, Jim James; Runtime: 77 minutes

The saddest part about talent is that far too many people take it personally. Everyone has had a hero die in biography, particularly in the arts where the trend has been toward creating a culture of decadence and sacrificial tyrants. We raise them up, they fuck up their lives and talent, and we feed them to the collective volcano called Fame. Watching Still Bill, I can’t remember being so moved by an artist’s life and words. I can’t remember the last time I learned about someone both gifted and wise. Still Bill paints an earnest portrait of the artist as modest craftsman. In Still Bill, truth actually is beauty and beauty is truth.

Having Bill Withers as the narrative guide would present more quandaries for a different kind of person. But his warmth and vulnerability disarm many of the questions about allowing someone to shape so much of their own story arc. Withers speaks in Southern koans, disarming in his humility, depth, and philosophical perspective on life. The directors take us walking with Withers through the old, ivied segregated graveyard where he looks for the graves of his family. We visit the rural, coal mining town of his youth and talk to friends he’s had since childhood or old neighbors who yell from their porch for a few lines of “Ain’t No Sunshine”. What works so well in Still Bill is the slow flow and the unobtrusiveness of the directors. It has clear structure and even something of a climactic moment, but every frame has the arresting rocking chair cadence of true intimacy. There’s no persona in Bill Withers, no sense that he remade himself to make music, a concept so foreign in a contemporary culture of icons like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince.

It’s clear that Withers never had the caste of the superstar. A stuttering asthmatic in his youth, Withers didn’t seem to be destined for music as he made his way through the military and several aircraft mechanic jobs. Vlack and Baker know how to convey ideas with perfects shot: Bill Withers lifetime of hard work gets shown by a gentle gliding close up on his knotty, weathered hands. Withers seems every bit the devoted family man, winding down his touring as he began having children with his wife. Repeated references are made to Wither’s issues with the music business, but the specifics are never really given. The absence takes nothing away from the documentary, but it’s the viewer’s natural instinct to get the dirt on his disillusionment. His family life appears placid and healthy. There’s an evolving tension between Withers and his daughter who also wants to be a singer, but his initial critical eye toward her work appears only to have been a push toward greatness as they eventually end up in the studio with him in tears over the beauty his daughter has created. Where’s the rehab? There are no backstage blowjobs, junkies, violent run-ins with the police, or self-entitled Caligulation.

It’s hard to sit through this documentary and not want to simply flood the page with superlatives. Withers is such a wise and moving figure that epiphanies frequently spill out of his mouth, though with the reined concision of a former stutterer. When he accepts an award at an arts theater dedicated to young people who stutter, he moves everyone in the room with his insight, grace, and eloquence, drawing out lessons from life like the ones her learned at his Grandma’s knee. He cold calls Cuban musician Raul Midon and asks him to jam in his home studio. He reflects on the natural cycle out of being the center of attention and how artists should realize when “it”, whatever “it” is, has left the building. He’s fully human and adult, without artifice or some arch sense of his own place in musical history. I have written about music for so long that I have become jaded to the entire concept of having a concept. Bill Withers realness was penetrating, revelatory, and leaves me effusively speechless. Still Bill is the antidote for every toxic seep of the TMZ-ification of the arts.

Only one small piece of the documentary broke the pulling spell. I mention it only because I’ve seen it too many times before in too many music documentaries. In the Joe Strummer documentary, The Future Is Unwritten, we got to hear rootless and platitudinous commentary from people like Matt Dillon and Johnny Depp. Not because of their relevant insights to the life of the artist, but simply to fumigate the story with the stench of celebrity. It’s just an extravagance that adds nothing significant to the story unless you are trying in someway to have a contemporary map of influences as part of the story. So why do Vlack and Baker give us Sting’s ethereal commentary on Bill Withers? He could have been talking about clotted cream for all the specificity given in his adoration. There is no historic or musical connection and it runs completely counter to Withers’ approach to life, the industry, and his critique of the adulation of celebrities over hard, working folks with underappreciated talents. I don’t even care what Sting has to say about Sting; here, this Lazy Susan of talking pop heads should burn on the cutting room floor. Similarly, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley falling over themselves to adore Withers added nothing to the documentary but an opportunity for West and Smiley to appear to be “on” the Bill Withers tip. Who cares?

Bill Wither’s seems to me to be the “Working Class Hero” that Lennon aspired to be, but never really was. He was a artist that learned a life away from his craft, only to return to playful experimentation in his golden years. He is brilliant and decent, a man who loved making music, but never confused the burning desire to create with the fame whore’s will-to-power.

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