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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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Wednesday, Mar 18, 2009
Director: Noah Hutton; Runtime: 70 minutes

I admire the documentarian with the light touch. In fact, with Crude Independence, I was expecting something along the lines of King Corn, where two college kids begin with a blood test and end up creating a documentary about the dehumanization of massive agribusiness. They built the story from the ground up, never condescending to their subjects and never using the power of the filmmaker to project intentions, ill or otherwise. But Crude Independence has virtually no touch at all, which ends up leaving it in the awkward position of seeming to advocate rather simplistic solutions to the complex issues involved in global energy policy. Sometimes poorly executed objectivity can lead to clumsily unintentional propaganda.


Crude Independence roughly traces the impact of the discovery of a huge shale oil deposition in the tiny North Dakotan village of Stanley. It’s these interviews where a judicious nudge would made the movie much more bearable: The townspeople discuss the impact in terms of the influx of roughnecks, sudden wealth, and the uneasiness of having financial security that rests on an industry notorious for boom-and-bust cycles and the economic wasteland left in their wake. But the conversations ramble interminably, rarely shedding insight upon anything other than small town life is really boring; so boring that the most interesting story in the film is told by a teenager who claims to have seen an extra-terrestrial in her boyfriend’s car. It quickly becomes one of the world’s most tedious Chamber of Commerce videos ever made. The roughneck segments meant to explain the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day life of their jobs falter because they’re wasted, shouting over one another and in the state of “I love you/I hate you” drunkenness. They make no sense and sound like raging idiots. While Noah Hutton’s long rambling tours through the town’s past give some sense of something somewhere having been lost; the viewer is certainly not compelled to play Mad Libs with the director. Is this industry destroying this town? Are small towns only transiently productive and possibly obsolete as permanent communities? I’m not offering a point of view, simply suggesting that there’s ton of material to work with here.


A group of roughnecks at a local bar

A group of roughnecks at a local bar



Only the segments in the county clerk’s office offer some of the meatier segments by explaining the difference between owning land and owning the mineral rights. Apparently, if you don’t own the mineral rights, a company can buy them, put an oil rig on your land, and decide what to offer you for the destruction of your property. At some point, the Sheriff notes that the industry with its huge trucks and massive traffic increase have destroyed the city’s roads. Well, maybe we can get an elected official on the screen to talk about the possibility of the company bearing a proportionate burden of its infrastructural damage. That’s why stories built from the ground like this can be so compelling and informative, because you can build out policy implications from the circumstances of the people you observe. If this is just supposed to be a portrait of a small town, it’s a bleak one with little more than blackouts, cheap motels, and a horizon blotted with cold, churning oil drills. When there is neither structure nor purpose in a documentary, the viewer is left in a floundering guessing game: Half projection, half dice roll. 


July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota

July 4th in Stanley, North Dakota


At some point, the film simply needs someone with a historical perspective, someone who can shed light on this economic process of narrow minded development that does little to benefit the long-term communities that it upends, guts, and abandons. The closest to any kind of above ground perspective comes from Byron Dorgan (Democratic Senator) who says we should drill, drill, drill and that he hopes that the town will be prepared for the potential for a bust. He hopes? He’s a legislator, isn’t there something he can do to make sure that companies try to build healthy post-boom economies in the places that they temporarily occupy. Noah Hutton seems more in love with images of industry and blurry highway shots set to guitar solos than he does with the actual issue that he tangents through. That’s the trouble with having a story told in rambling yarns by people who might be good in nature, but have absolutely no idea about the amount of oil they’re producing or how it may or may not offset our dependence on “troubled” regions. You end up having the default position of the few articulate people in the documentary talking about the absolute need for unregulated drilling, the greatness of Bush’s energy policy, and the fact that some of the Stanley residents have been able to build towering Japanese waterfalls in their living rooms with fat oil checks. That’s entirely too shoddy a treatment for such a pressing, complicated issue and does no favor of the people of Stanley to deny them a bird’s eye view with a side of hope.


 


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