The TFS List: Canadian documentaries that got us talking

Documentaries with a political bent are vital to Canadian cinema. Many are amazing films that deserve to be seen. They show the rest of the world—and us—what some Canadian filmmakers have accomplished in the art of documentary.

Political docs can make great stories. But rather than being incidental, it’s in the DNA of the subject matter. The stakes are often incredibly high (sometimes life and death). If the filmmaker has done their job, the audience will care deeply about the characters, or at least be impressed by the aesthetic of the film, by the time the credits roll.

There is a hunger not only for well-made films but for long-form content amid a media-saturated landscape. Whether or not we should have political cinema, there is still an appetite for it. The financial and critical success of U.S.-produced political docs like Bowling for Columbine, An Inconvenient Truth, and more recently Blackfish, are proof. But there are plenty of Canadian-produced heavyweights as well, like Up the Yangtze, Manufactured Landscapes, and The Corporation, to name a few.

Okay, so there’s an appetite. So what? If I should watch a political documentary and feel depressed or angry or emboldened for an hour or two afterward before returning to my everyday life, has it accomplished any more than a gripping (and completely fictional) drama could? Do political documentaries actually change anything?

In the foreword to the book “Challenge For Change: Activist Documentary at the National Film Board of Canada,” author Naomi Klein argues that we shouldn’t try to measure the impact a film could have.

“You know, all film can do, all books can do, is start a discussion,” Klein wrote. “You put an idea out into the world and you can’t control what’s going to happen. You just have to believe in the value of the production of ideas.”

Up the Yangtze

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A documentary film that has a political dimension to it is usually meant to be a tool for social change. Let’s assume for a moment that in Canada there is some overlap between people who love movies and people who care about the world around them. For these people, a film like Up the Yangtze (2007) can be an eye-opener. I remember studying China in elementary school, and learning about the the Three Gorges Dam and the toll it’s taken on rural communities along the Yangtze River. But until you see a film like this, this is merely an “issue,” or an abstraction.

Documentary film tells a story, with a conflict, and a cast of characters. In so doing, the issue becomes more concrete, more human. Klein also points out in the foreword that when documentaries are political, they shouldn’t try to carefully build an argument, which is something a book might do better. Great film engages as many senses as it can. It’s primarily visual, and it’s better at engaging the emotions more immediately than a book may be.

So what distinguishes a political documentary from propaganda? If I had seen Up the Yangtze in Grade six, how is that different from simple indoctrination? The line can sometimes be blurred. But some documentaries, arguably the best ones, are about stimulating conversation, even heated argument.

Manufactured Landscapes

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The film Manufactured Landscapes (2006) examines the art of Edward Burtynsky, an overwhelming compilation of photographs of factories, mines, quarries, and landfills, left in the wake of China’s industrial revolution. The film isn’t making any overtly political statements. It doesn’t flat out argue what can be done, if anything, or what is even right and wrong in this circumstance (although the film certainly uses techniques to manipulate us to feel that something is wrong about what we’re seeing).

So what is it doing? Will a film as beautifully made as Manufactured Landscapes actually change anything? Does it even want to, and if not, does it count as “political”? This is hard to measure and probably beyond what documentary film—even the best—can do.

The Corporation

Then again, political docs can be about revealing an injustice, and trying to find a way to right it. The Corporation (2003) is another Canadian-produced doc film that makes no bones about its agenda: to compare corporations to psychopaths, and why this is bad for everybody. In either case, the political documentary is only one half of an equation. If these films are about starting discussion, how can those discussions be started unless the conditions are just right? And what are those conditions?

The Challenge for Change/Societé nouvelle was a program launched by the National Film Board in the late ‘60s to create social change in Canada through the production and distribution of documentary cinema. It ran for 14 years before it was axed by the Mulroney government. Part of its goal was to use the momentum that a documentary film could generate. Its spirit lives on in programs like Cinema Politica, a program that screens progressive political documentaries. Founded at Concordia University in 2003, Cinema Politica is now 10 years running and has since expanded to a network of semi-autonomous groups worldwide and across Canada. The local chapter can be found at Toronto’s very own Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

At each chapter a film is screened, and then followed by a Q&A. This is a way to get the artists, activists, and audience all in the same room. In an article in THIS Magazine, Ezra Winton, the co-founder of Cinema Politica, says that “having bodies together in a space is a political aspect of viewing cinema that you don’t have when it’s online and you can be anonymous.” The key here seems to be getting different people in a room together. It’s a way of building community around a worthy cause. This is something the act of going to the movies still has the power to do, even in the Age of Netflix.

So what is political documentary worth to Canadian culture? It might help to ask this:

What does it mean when people don’t get together to watch and question these films together? What happens when the mechanisms that not only make it possible for these films to be made and distributed, but also create a forum for discussing them are no longer in place? (Take the NFB for example, which helped produce each of the docs I just mentioned, and which has been slowly drained of its funding year after year.)

Sorry for the rhetorical question. Given the subject matter it’s hard not to get a little political. It may be hard to measure the value of political Canadian documentaries to our culture, but considering what they’ve done and what they could do–even if it’s nothing but a debate that could lead to new ideas–I’d rather they were still around.

Connecting the dots between comedy and mental health

There’s a scene in Zach Galifianakis’s stand-up hour/documentary Live at the Purple Onion that I keep thinking about. After rushing out of a cramped elevator, Galifianakis tells his friend and videographer Joe Wagner that small spaces make him really anxious. Wagner then points out to him that mental illness seems to be a theme in his work. Galifianakis agrees. “The human psyche is so fragile a lot of times,” he says. “Can you really trust your mind?”

Galifianakis is known for an absurd brand of humour. Regardless of the kind of a person he is off screen, what intrigues me is that his onscreen persona does seem to be struggling with something. It’s not a subject to be talked about at a safe distance in his routine; it kind of is the routine. When you watch it, there are moments where you wonder if he’s really losing it. It’s a part of his act of course, but he invites the audience to doubt, making it that much more satisfying when you realize he was (more or less) in control the entire time. Whether his belligerent and volatile schtick always works on a comedic level is debatable, but it is compelling to watch, and interesting that he should take it to that level for a laugh.

He’s known best in film for the odd-ball characters he plays in The Hangover trilogy and Due Date, characters who are eccentric, childish, and perhaps deeply socially inept. But in 2010 he starred in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a much more dramatic turn for the actor–a man committed to a psychiatric ward, struggling with his own demons–no punchline included. The last example may be a coincidence, but it’s a noteworthy one. It says nothing about Galifianakis’s personal life, but it speaks volumes about the connection between the world of comedy and the world of mental health.

Galifianakis is only one of many comedians who use their tenuous relationship with sanity to make us laugh. In January the UK newspaper The Guardian published an article about a study that showed that “those working in comedy may be more disposed to ‘high levels of psychotic personality traits’” than other creative types. Stephen Fry and Ruby Wax are both high-profile British comic actors who have spoken openly about their experiences with bipolar disorder. Also on the list of comedians struggling with mental illness are Russell Brand, John Cleese, Robin Williams, and Jim Carrey.

By now, it’s no secret that there is a relationship between mental health and comedy. But that relationship isn’t always clear-cut. Comedy can be a form of therapy, or at least a coping mechanism. Or it can be a way of avoiding one’s problems. Galifianakis said in an interview that the entertainment business attracts people who are already messed up, and makes them even more messed up.

Wouldn’t comedy only encourage people to do nothing about their problems so they can keep being funny? Let’s assume for a moment that Galifianakis was more like his onstage, or onscreen personas, the ones that seem to have some major issues, and not the introvert that he really is. Is he simply exploiting his personal issues for entertainment, rather than dealing with them? And if this is true, does he mind? Stephen Fry said that he would be reluctant to get rid of his bipolar disorder. He said the surge of optimism and creativity he felt during his manic upswings is a thing to be treasured while it lasts. But it may not be the same for those who are strictly depressive, or suffer from social anxiety, debilitating conditions that are more unambiguously obstacles to creative power, rather than sources for it. And yet, so the study goes, people with these issues are drawn to the spotlight.

I don’t want to downplay the fact that comedy is a craft and it takes a lot of hard work, but it is also a safe haven for people to channel their inner demons, when there’s no other socially acceptable place to put them. A lot of comedians–performers in general–are very shy out of the spotlight. It makes perfect sense that Galifianakis appears so odd onscreen and so introverted off of it. I also think the mistake is thinking you have to choose between real treatment or comedy, and not both. Why not? Comedy can be a powerful way to raise awareness of mental illness, it can remove the stigma that surrounds it. Programs like Stand Up for Mental Health and podcasts like The Mental Illness Happy Hour are a testament to that. And although comedy’s no substitute for treatment, it is, so the saying goes, definitely cheaper.

How does sci-fi represent characters with disability?

Science fiction deals with our relationship to technology, and since technology is an extension of our own bodies, it should come as no surprise that the theme of disability comes up as often as it does in sci-fi. But this theme is addressed in more than one way, and each case tells us something different about how we view people with disability, and the technology they have.

Jake Sully (Avatar)

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Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-marine who has his consciousness melded with the body of a Navi, a being indigenous to the planet Pandora. With this assignment comes the ability to not only walk, but to perform with heightened  strength, speed, agility, and even the ability to pilot a large a winged beast called a Toruk, which can’t be easy for the most able-bodied person. He’s superhuman now, and he experiences freedom he’d never imagined in his now dormant human body. This experience arguably makes him more emotionally human.

At first glance this technology seems like a great thing for a disabled person. Who wouldn’t want a body that’s stronger, faster–more able? But isn’t this kind of a cop out? Rather than explore what is possible within his own body, Sully’s slate is wiped clean. Doesn’t this devalue the disabled body in favour of an abled one? In this imagined futuristic society, couldn’t they have more advanced medicine and technology to understand and aid paraplegics in their own bodies without having to resort to jumping into new ones?

Darth Vader (Star Wars, Episodes III-VI)

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When Anakin Skywalker is burned and mutilated in battle, he’s given cybernetic body parts to complete him, baptizing him as Darth Vader. Luke’s mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi even describes him at one point as “more machine now, than man, twisted and evil.” To be fair, he was on his way to the “Dark Side” before he became disabled and reborn as Vader. But it’s worth noting that, while his new body isn’t the cause of his malevolence, it does make him an easier target for fear and pity. It kind of sealed the deal on his bad-guy status. Cybernetics aren’t prosthetics, but they serve a similar function. What does this tell us about how we value a body that’s not only not organic, but doesn’t look it either?

It might seem silly to ask these questions of Star Wars or Avatar, but unlike fantasy, science fiction sometimes has the potential to become reality. How else is advanced technology going to become science fact if it can’t be imagined first in science fiction? If any genre of film can explore what possibilities there are in disability topics, it’s sci-fi.

Professor Xavier (X-Men, X-2, X-Men Last Stand, X-cetera…)

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Like Jake Sully, Professor Xavier is a paraplegic man, and his disability also sets up a theme of transcending the frailties of the human body. But he does it in a way that doesn’t devalue the body he has. It helps that he’s one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe, but even so, as a scientist he could have easily developed his technology to make him able-bodied rather than as a means to enhance his telepathy or find and guide fellow mutants. Xavier lives more or less contentedly in his own body, and moves around in a wheelchair. Even if Xavier ever wishes he could walk again, it’s never his main motivation for doing what he does. His disability is a big part of his personal narrative,  but it’s not really a plot point in the X-Men films. It’s simply a given.

Curt Connors/The Lizard (The Amazing Spider-Man)

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Unlike Vader, Curt Connors uses gene splicing rather than cybernetics to grow back his missing arm, becoming the Lizard in the process. The body of the Lizard is not cybernetic at all, but it’s still a new and able body, created out of available technology. Like Darth Vader, the Lizard monster is in a way born out of the character’s disability. Like Jake Sully’s, this new body is not only able but technically it’s made of organic material — it’s a natural body. But unlike Sully, it’s the natural and able-bodied Lizard who is the monster, and the disabled Connor who is the sympathetic human.

Geordi La Forge (Star Trek: Generations; First Contact; Insurrection; Nemesis)

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He’s blind, but he relies on the technology available to him for a different kind of sight, first with a VISOR, a device attached at his temples and covering his eyes, and then with cybernetic eye implants in the later TNG movies. This technology doesn’t let him see and perceive light the way a functioning natural eye does. Instead, he can see the world around him through the entire electromagnetic spectrum, which I’d say gives him an advantage over his peers. This doesn’t change the fact that he is blind without this technology, but it doesn’t make him an object of pity, either. Interestingly, the other characters on this list are disabled through injury, while La Forge is blind at birth.

This raises the question: in a futuristic civilization like the one in Star Trek, how and why is congenital disability still possible, given the advances in genetic engineering in our own day and age? Genetic engineering did exist when Geordi La Forge first appeared on television. Why would we want to imagine this kind of world where we can fly to distant solar systems but we can’t prevent blindness?

Here’s one possible explanation: science fiction is only about the future on the surface. Science fiction is about us, here and now, and how we deal with issues as they come to us, here and now. In our present day, disability is a given. So why would we imagine a world without blindness, paraplegia or limb loss, when they are the reality of many people now? It may be more interesting to see what possibilities emerge when characters work with what they’ve got.

Review: The Railway Man



The Railway Man tells the story of Eric Lomax, a former British Army officer who was forced into a labour camp to help build the Burma Railway for the Japanese army during World War II.

The film opens decades after the war, when Eric (Colin Firth) meets Patti (Nicole Kidman). They fall in love and get married, and it’s not long after that Patti discovers how deeply traumatized her husband is by his experiences as a P.O.W. As Eric’s behaviour becomes more volatile, Patti turns to his best friend and fellow officer Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), who reluctantly tells her what happened to them. Hoping to bring some peace of mind to his friend, Finlay decides to tell Eric that the Japanese officer who tortured him at the camp is still alive.

The Railway Man is based on Lomax’s bestselling memoir of the same name. This story is one that deserves to be told, so it’s unfortunate that Teplitzky’s adaptation falls short of the compelling source material.

Fortunately it features some strong performances from its cast to keep things interesting. Kidman’s performance as Patti is nuanced but effective, which helps when her character is given little room to leave much of an impression. Stellan Skarsgård gives a grim but endearing portrayal of Finlay. Jeremy Irvine delivers a strong performance as the younger Eric, but it is Colin Firth’s work that carries the film, and he demonstrates here once again how he is more than capable of playing the leading man. It’s always exciting to see Firth in darker roles; Eric is a haunted man, but Firth makes you feel more than just sorry for him.

The score is beautiful, and there’s some gorgeous cinematography throughout. There’s one scene that depicts a violent act in a very effective way: all we see of it are the reactions on the faces of the bystanders, and not the act itself. But otherwise, for all of its polish the storytelling is kind of bland. Not bad, just middle-of-the-road. The film moves at a good pace, but even then it’s easy to guess where it’s going.

This retelling of Lomax’s story makes it feel less unique than it really is. Its complexity and richness is brushed aside in favour of a more digestible kind of morality tale that Hollywood loves to rehash. It does it well, but there isn’t much that’s fresh about it.

Is The Railway Man opening weekend worthy?

The film is very moving at times (bring a hanky or two), but like a train on a set track it tends to move in a predictable direction. I wouldn’t rush to the theatres for this one.

The Railway Man trailer

The Railway Man gallery

The TFS List: movies we were told not to watch, but did anyway

It’s difficult talking about films we were told not to watch but secretly did in part because there’s more than one reason why younger audiences aren’t allowed to watch some films: some times those reasons are valid, some times they aren’t. There’s also more than one reason why those young audiences might be watching those films. The following list is of those kinds of movies and the reasons why kids and young adults may be drawn to them.

The Forbidden Fruit

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This is probably the most common reason. Just about any adult-oriented film could fall into this category. I remember fifteen year-old me trying to get into the theatre with my friends to see Sin City, a tricky affair because of its 18A rating. Sin City is a neo-noir crime action film that depicts a world up to its neck in violence, corruption, crime, and sex, not to mention references to child molestation and cannibalism. It was rated 18A for “sustained strong stylized violence, nudity and sexual content including dialogue.” But is it just the high rating that attracted young people? Would they be less interested in the work of Frank Miller if the rating was lower? I don’t know, but I’m guessing the appeal also has something to do with the “stylized” nature of the violence depicted. Maybe there’s something about the aesthetic of these films that resonates with young people–or intelligent people who happen to be young, and recognize there’s more to it than mindless violence and don’t like being condescended to with 18A ratings. Who knows.

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Then again, sometimes it can be fun to see something gross, tasteless, shallow, ultra-raunchy, crude, vulgar, immature, self-indulgent, overrated–all words used by film critics to describe American Pie (1999), a late 90‘s teen sex comedy about a group of friends who make a pact to lose their virginity before graduating high school. I’m really curious what words teenagers would use if they were the ones writing the reviews, instead of those firmly ensconced in adulthood. Maybe they’d use the same words, but the film was popular with younger audiences. It is about sex, after all. Teenagers having sex (or 20-something year-olds playing teenagers, anyway). Young people still discovering sex might in a way see themselves onscreen in films like this. Maybe it is just pure raunch and nothing else, but movies like American Pie could be seen as an extreme reaction to a culture that still seems to have a lot of trouble talking with teenagers about sex in a meaningful way. It’s no wonder the teen sex-comedy genre can be liberating.

The Reputation Precedes It

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The Exorcist
(1973), a story of a woman who seeks the aid of two priests to save her possessed daughter, is now iconic. The fact that it inspired an entire sub-genre of supernatural horror films is proof. Does it deserve that icon-hood? Is it still as scary as people say it is? That question could be another reason why someone might watch it when they’re not old enough to. It’s also a stand-in for just about every movie declared the scariest movie ever made, but its status is especially questionable with the passage of time and the gradual desensitization of movie-goers. Horror films are definitely forbidden fruit for kids, but it could be more about seeing if it really does live up to the hype, and seeing if you’re brave and grown up enough to go through with it.

Movies You Shouldn’t Watch, But Watch Anyway…With Your Parents

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When I was 7 I went to my friend’s house and his dad put on Ralph Bakshi’s animated fantasy epic Wizards (1977). Wizards is about a conflict between good and evil in an ultra-futuristic world where science and technology are outlawed, and magic reigns supreme. Bakshi is also well-known for his notorious, X-rated animated film Fritz the Cat. Wizards is far more tame, and family-friendly by comparison. Yet it still contains crude language, partial nudity, and graphic violence. I was probably enthralled by it in some ways, but I also had a vague feeling that I shouldn’t be watching it.

In retrospect I’m not a fan of the movie, but I do find it interesting because it’s an animated film that’s rated PG and it’s kind of crass. But I’m sure plenty of kids have seen it. This could be one example where the rating system is on the kids’ side, and not the parents’, making it a target for controversy.

It might be easy to blame it on other peoples’ parents for those cases. But to be honest, by the time I was eight, the movies I’d seen with my own parents included films like the Alien Quadrilogy, The Commitments, The Life of Brian, and Austin Powers. That’s kind of cool, but it didn’t feel as transgressive to watch those with parents. Does this mean that parental supervision automatically inoculates the whole experience? It’s possible. I think it can be a very healthy thing to do, but in a way it limits the kids to the parents’ tastes.

The films I cited earlier aren’t exactly high-brow, but watching them and films like them are acts of independence all the same, another big reason for transgression. The act of watching a movie you’re not allowed to is is about seeking out and deciding the limits of your own taste for yourself, and figuring out your own identity. This is important to young people, kids and teens alike. There will always be opportunities for it, for good or bad. And there will always be a film that parents, critics, concerned citizens, and society at large may unanimously say “this film is bad for you.” It might be for good reason, but even then there will always be kids who say “I’ll be the judge of that.”

Cinema Revisited: documentaries that got it wrong

Documentary film has a long and illustrious tradition of not being objective. Michael Moore isn’t the only game in town: this list presents a tiny sampling of this tradition, ranging from relatively subjective, to wildly and unabashedly so.

GMO OMG

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Back in November, I reviewed GMO OMG. I was pretty easy on it where other film reviews weren’t, partly because I thought it was well done, and maaaybe partly because I was thinking a bit too wishfully. GMO OMG‘s perspective is that of a layperson’s, and it appears to be okay with that. Director Jeremy Seifert said in an interview with Nathanael Johnson of Grist that he “didn’t really dig too deep into the scientific aspect” and it was the “cultural phenomenon of our widespread ignorance” that interested him. That’s fine, until he starts throwing around scientific data, which means he is now being held to a higher standard.

Seifert claimed that there was little scientific consensus about GMOs, ignoring the testimony of organizations like the British Royal Society of Medicine, the European Commission, and the World Health Organization, that say otherwise. He relies on the studies of Dr. Gilles Eric Seralini, who concluded that GMOs have toxic effects, even though these conclusions were widely criticized by the scientific community.

Sure, agri-business giants like Monsanto are probably more interested in turning a profit for its shareholders than they are in looking at the long-term effects biotech will have on our health and the environment. We should be wary of them. But Seifert enters the ring with this prejudice built in, and thoughtful inquiry into genetic engineering verges on paranoia. I don’t regret that I enjoyed the film. But the issue at hand is more complex than a David and Goliath narrative, and while Seifert even says that on the one hand we should do research and learn to think for ourselves, the film kind of says, in parenthesis, but you know I’m right, don’t you.

Zeitgeist: The Movie

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Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist: The Movie is a smorgasbord of conspiracy theories. First it claims that Jesus of Nazareth was bogus because his character is based on pre-Christian pagan astrology (or something like that). Then it theorizes that 9/11 was orchestrated by the U.S. government to give them an excuse to go to war (because the Bush administration wasn’t evil enough without this theory). Added in is the idea that the world is run by a sinister international cabal of bankers. Alright, so many people aren’t going to take this film seriously. Critics who didn’t ignore the film wholesale gave it a thorough debunking.

Yet there is something very attractive about a conspiracy theory, even to the non-paranoiac. It ties together all these seemingly disparate facts–in this case with stock footage–into a morbidly satisfying whole; order out of chaos. But, as one of the film’s reviewers said, “there are more than enough factual injustices in this world to be going around without having to invent fictional ones.”

So why is this even on this list? We may laugh at a conspiracy theory film, but it does expose the major limitations of agenda-driven docs, which is that any information that doesn’t suit the filmmaker’s argument can be conveniently left out, or taken out of context. This is more obvious in a conspiracy theory film, but what about one that’s more fact-based?

Waiting for Superman

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Take, for example, Waiting For Superman, a film by Davis Guggenheim, who is also the director of An Inconvenient Truth. It’s far more thoroughly researched, and it’s no conspiracy theory that the education system in the U.S. is in shambles. But it still tells only partial truths. It blames most of the problems on the bureaucracy of teacher unions, paving the way for the bright, shiny, and privately-funded charter school system to come to the rescue. Never mind the fact that four out of five charter schools are no better, and sometimes even worse, than their public school counterparts. Or that teachers unions have been evolving rapidly and making a lot of inroads in education reform, despite being constantly villainized in the popular imagination.

The oversimplification is frustrating because it’s a very moving film, especially when it tells the story of individual children that the system fails to help. But that alone is not enough for this kind of documentary. It’s very well done, but the polished product and the filmmaker’s credentials are precisely why a viewer should be alert. Guggenheim is apparently sympathetic to teacher unions, but if this is true, there’s not much proof of it in Waiting For Superman. The truth might be more complicated, and maybe harder to make a good movie out of.

BONUS: I’m Still Here doesn’t really fit in this list, but in the spirit of controversial film month, how could I not include it? Everybody knows now that it’s fake, but we didn’t know that for sure that Joaquin Phoenix hadn’t really gone off the deep end until after it was released, when Casey Affleck announced it was all scripted. It’s a good example of how the filmmaker can violate an assumed trust with an audience; but unlike the others on the list, the misrepresentation is very conscious and very on purpose. Nobody likes being duped, but like it or loathe it, it’s a darn good reminder that you can’t believe everything you see on TV (or in film).

Spotlight On: Canadian Sport Film Festival

Sports are full of spectacle and high drama, making them ideal for film. Often we find ourselves wanting to know the inner lives of sports fanatics and athletes without a commentator jabbering away at us, or constant interludes of player stats and Coors Light commercials. Film can distill the beauty of sports to its essentials, to the parts that really matter. Of course we want our team to win, but only after a good fight, a good story. We love sports for their stories, and some times we want more than just inspirational baseball stories, and Will Ferrell on ice. Some times we need an alternative. This is what the Canadian Sport Film Festival is all about.

The Canadian Sport Film Festival, running annually in June, was founded in 2008 by film and sport lover Russell Field. Field is an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba, where he teaches a course called “Sport, Film, and Society”. He also used to be a film review editor for the Journal of Sport History, so he probably knows what he’s talking about.

The purpose of the festival is essentially to showcase stories told on film that revolve in some way around sports. According to its website, the festival aims to educate, inform, engage, and of course entertain communities throughout the country by “using powerful personal and political stories told on film through sport”.  Typical Hollywood sport-fare is nowhere in sight here; for Moneyball or The Blind Side, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The festival focuses on films and filmmakers, mostly documentaries and short films, that aren’t usually screened, or even available to as broad of an audience.

For example, the lineup last year included docs like Lace Bite, about 40 women who play a hockey game lasting 10 days to break the world record for longest game, and raise funds and awareness for cystic fibrosis; or 9.79, a film about Canadian runner Ben Jonson’s controversial victory in 100-metre race during the ’88 Olympics in Seoul. Some of its past short film line-up included 41 Days (2012), an Egyptian film about a young boy named Youssef who wants to watch the ’94 World Cup but is forbidden to watch TV while their family is in mourning for his late aunt. Another is Finish Line (2011), about a young track star who is forced to take sex verification testing; or Two Laps (2010), a five-minute Australian short with the tagline that explains it best: “Two Friends. One Race. Two Laps. No Prisoners.”

The festival covers a wide range of subjects, and reminds us not only of the huge variety of sports we play and the ways we play them, from our local rec centre to the other side of the world, but just how versatile the sport film genre really is.

The Year in Movies: favourite films I saw in 2013 because of Toronto Film Scene

I like to think I know a thing or two about movies, but compared to the film-buffery of many of the contributors to Toronto Film Scene, I’m a total neophyte. But that’s one of the main reasons I enjoy being a contributor, because it exposes me to new films I wouldn’t have seen if not for TFS (and older ones I should have seen by now anyway).

The following is a list of some of my favourite films that I’ve seen this past year either because I had to review and discuss them, or because other TFS’ers inspired me to go out and see them myself.

A Married Couple

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Before reality TV there was Allan King’s A Married Couple. It follows Billy and Antoinette, a young married couple over the course of a few months, as their relationship constantly teeters over the brink. Both of these people can be very annoying (especially Billy in his more pompous moments, of which he has many), and usually that would make me stop watching. Thankfully I had to watch it all, and I legitimately wanted to, partly because of that perverted voyeuristic fascination with watching a car accident. But I also found myself caring about what would happen to them in the end; these are real people after all. The fact that the film is semi-scripted, meaning King was more than an objective observer, makes this weird piece of “actuality drama” that much more engrossing.

 

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

the life and crimes of doris payne

The story of an African-American woman who came from a broken and impoverished home only to become one of the greatest jet-setting jewel thieves of the 20th Century sounds made up, and yet there she is on screen, still stealing in her 80s, and trying to outrun and outsmart the law for as long as she can. Her story is fantastic, and almost romantic, except for the toll it takes on her family and herself. This film is a wonderful portrait of a woman riddled with contradictions any screenwriter could only dream of inventing.

 

Musicwood

musicwood

It’s not always easy viewing an environmental doc about how we’re screwing up the planet six ways from Sunday, but this film manages to thwart that doom and gloom stereotype, even though the message is largely the same. Musicwood is poignant in that it connects the natural world to the world of music, and how the loss of one will deal a bitter blow to the other. But it’s more than just a soapbox because of the opposition between Greenpeace, who are trying to save the U.S.’s largest national forest, and the Native American landowners who bristle when outsiders tell them how to manage their land. Musicwood manages to strike a balance between all sides of the argument, even when the bottom line is the loss of this forest to clear-cutting means the loss of the acoustic guitar as we know it, not to mention, you know, an entire ecosystem.

 

Cube

A seemingly random group of strangers find themselves trapped in "Cube"

I was never assigned this film to review, but it and its creator Vincenzo Natali have been brought up around TFS often enough that I figured I couldn’t not see it myself. So I had myself a date with Netflix and six strangers who wake up in a giant alien-like structure, without any memory of how they got there or why they’re there in the first place. The dialogue and acting can be pretty goofy at times, but the ideas in the film are diabolically well-crafted, and for the most part well executed. The making of the film is also a testament to how much you can do with very little means.

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Review: Looking is the Original Sin



Looking is the Original Sin centres around a troubled relationship between Helene Truman (Maria Del Mar), a brilliant and unstable photographer, and her 19-year-old daughter Anna (Katie Boland). When Helene decides to run away from home to live and work in her studio without leaving any message for her daughter, Anna searches through Helene’s old photographs to find out the life she’s been living and kept from Anna. From there she finds out about Brent, a drag queen and close friend of Helene’s, and a man Helene may have cheated on her husband with.

There is something poignant about the fact that Anna has to find out who her mother is through photos even while Helene is still around and in her life, but you’re left wondering, why now? Why is Anna just starting to investigate now, after all this time, knowing what her mother is like? The film seems to begin at an arbitrary point in their relationship; they clearly have issues, Anna gets fed up with her mother, they fight, but then they make up. Nothing new, here. When Anna expresses an interest in photography Helen invites her along on one of her shoots and is shocked by her behaviour. Wouldn’t she have known by 19 that her mother is a bit wild? This seems to cause a greater rift in their relationship, and propels the story forward but it feels forced. Little of the drama that follows is earned.

The dialogue is very casual and loose, perhaps too loose in contrast to those moments of high drama that feel stilted. Anna wanders the city trying to uncover her mother’s secrets, and just as the beginning seems to come out of nowhere, so does the climax, cutting the narrative short when things seem to get interesting.

Gail Harvey captures some lovely, seemingly unscripted, moments between the characters, a fitting analog to Helene’s need to capture the vulnerability and frailties which people try to hide. The strongest aspect of the film are the performances by Maria Del Mar and especially Katie Boland, who seem at ease in the lives of these characters. Unfortunately the script itself doesn’t deliver as much as they do.

Is Looking is the Original Sin opening weekend worthy?

The film clocks in at 83 minutes, which in most cases is a relief. There is so much underdeveloped territory that makes that length unsatisfying. It’s worth seeing for the performances, but on opening weekend? Not necessary.

Looking is the Original Sin opens Friday, November 22, at the Carlton Cinema. For more details, visit their website.

More About Looking Is the Original Sin

Looking is the Original Sin trailer

http://vimeo.com/72228323

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Review: GMO OMG



Most of us have heard of genetically modified organisms, at least in passing. the acronym GMO has entered the vernacular, but what exactly is a GMO? Who makes them? And what impact do they have on our health, the environment, and our freedom of choice? These are the questions that motivate Jeremy Seifert in his new documentary film GMO OMG, and his search for answers takes him on a journey across the U.S., Haiti, Norway, and France. Throughout he becomes increasingly suspicious of GMOs and the companies that make them, especially when they fall silent when he asks the simple question: what are we eating?

Seifert takes his wife and children on some of his visits to various conventional and organic farms across the U.S., and at first I expected the way he relates the narrative back to his family to come off as manipulative (please think of the children!) but what emerges is something more interesting: he does his best to educate them about GMOs and the potentially toxic effect they may have on us, and they seem to agree, yet they still like eating the food they are used to, food full of GMOs. This reflects the cavalier attitude many of us have toward the questionable food we eat. We know our food is suspect, but we eat it anyway.

The picture the film paints is less incriminating of genetic engineering itself, but the way it’s exploited by multinational biotech companies to increase profit at the cost of quality of life and biodiversity. And while it offers nothing groundbreaking to the documentary form, and little more to convince us of the wickedness of the food industry–the most obvious comparison will be to Food Inc.–it has an important message that perhaps should be repeated often and in as many ways possible. And where Food Inc. paints a picture of the industry in broad strokes, GMO OMG zeroes in on a particular area and brings it into sharper focus. The common denominators are government beholden to big agribusiness, Monsanto being the main target of the films’ indictments of corporate greed and opacity. The film is just as earnest and impassioned about its subject, but perhaps cheekier in tone than Food Inc.; at one point Jeremy brings his two sons to a genetically modified cornfield, and gets them to put on suits and gas masks before they can run and frolic through it. It’s a stunt, but it knows it’s a stunt.

Is GMO OMG opening weekend worthy?

For the relevance of the issue alone I would say yes, but it’s also a well done documentary. The way it’s framed as Seifert’s personal journey to better understand the subject makes it more accessible, without losing the urgency of its message. Plus, it’s visually appealing and has some great music to boot. Fun isn’t the right word, but it is in some ways enjoyable viewing.

GMO OMG opens Friday, November 22, 2013 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Director Jeremy Seifert will participate in Skype Q&As on Friday, November 22, 2013 at 6:30 pm, and Saturday, November 23, 2013 at 8:30 pm. Check their website for details and showtimes.

More About GMO OMG

The GMO OMG trailer

The GMO OMG gallery

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REEL Indie 2013 Review: Musicwood



Musicwood is a documentary directed by Maxine Trump about a group of the world’s most famous acoustic guitar-makers brought together by Greenpeace to travel to the largest national forest in the U.S. and negotiate with a Native American logging company to save the trees from clear-cutting–and save the acoustic guitar. Controversy erupts over this region located in southeast Alaska, and as different factions struggle to make their voice heard, the best hope to bring them together may be the music itself.

This film probes controversial territory, as environmentalists clash with the Native American landowners, who aren’t particularly keen on being told by outsiders how to manage their own property, after only just getting it back from the U.S. Government in the 70s. This alone lifts the story out of a simple mother earth vs. human greed narrative; however, while this is the central conflict of Musicwood, the film always brings the focus back to the music, including interviews not just with the guitar-makers, but notable and insanely talented acoustic guitarists like Yo La Tengo, Steve Earle, and Kaki King. This is more than a black and white issue, and director Trump does an excellent job making sure all sides are heard, without losing the clarity and urgency of its message: no more trees, no more guitar.

Is Musicwood essential Reel Indie viewing?

Absolutely. Musicwood brings a fresh perspective to an old story, and anybody especially interested in acoustic music should check this one out.

Musicwood screening time

More About Musicwood

Musicwood trailer

Musicwood gallery

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The TFS List: Canadian teen films

While some great teen films have been made in the U.S. (e.g. anything by John Hughes), Canadian filmmakers also know how to punch above their weight in this category. The following are just a few of those teen films that stand out in the genre, each one wildly different from the last. But they all have common ground: none of them romanticize teenage life, but they don’t look down on it either. Feeling like the outcast is a universal theme, but the outsider archetype applies especially well to the life of a teenager. However, these particular teenagers are the ones who embrace their outsiderliness; they have bigger fish to fry, and no time to wallow in teen angst. They are young, and their freedom is limited, yes, but they won’t let that stop them from doing extraordinary things. These films follow protagonists that are compelling both in spite of and entirely because of their teenage-hood. And these Canadian teen films all happen to be damn funny, too.

New Waterford Girl (1999)

I first saw New Waterford Girl when I was a pre-teen, and even though I never grew up anywhere near the same stifling conditions that Mooney Pottie did — in 1970’s small town Nova Scotia, in a big Catholic family that sees you as some kind of weirdo — I could still understand that feeling of not fitting in and the overwhelming desire to escape.

But Mooney is weird and doesn’t care who knows it. Unfortunately that’s not enough to convince her parents to let her attend an art school in New York City, and it’s not until a family of New Yorkers move in next door that things start to change for for Mooney.

Everybody is perfectly cast, with veteran actors Mary Walsh and Nicholas Campbell as Mooney’s parents, and Tara Spencer-Nairn of Corner Gas fame as Lou Benza, the pugnacious girl next door who she joins forces with to beat up other girls’ boyfriends when they get out of line.

It’s a great movie because of its ensemble, but Liane Balaban as Mooney is definitely at the heart of it. Mooney is an unforgettable protagonist, not just because she is obviously the outsider in this community for her eccentric personality, but because of the lengths she’ll go to to be free, including the way she takes advantage of the town’s social taboos to do it, even at the risk of ruining her own reputation. She’s devious, and you love her for it.

 

The Trotsky (2009)

The Trotsky is another film about a youngster who dreams of greater horizons, except instead of rebelling against his family to get out of town, he takes teenage rebellion to the extreme by attempting to start a full-on revolution, Bolshevik-style.

It can be frustrating at any age, but especially when younger, when you want to make the world a better place and nobody else, least of all your own peers, could care less. Even though Leon Bronstein is quixotic at best and downright delusional at worst, his attempts to mirror the life of Marxist intellectual Leon Trotsky are actually kind of inspiring, a comic antidote to the apathy of the MTV generation. That’s not to say that this film will make “kids these days” more politically involved, but it’s refreshing nonetheless to see a film about a teenager who is, even if he is a bit off his rocker.

And just on its own the film is great. The Trotsky made me a fan of Jay Baruchel, and it also marks the second appearance of Liane Balaban on this list (although she’s technically one of the grown-ups by now). The premise is odd and funny and original, and the execution–from the writing to the casting to the wicked soundtrack–thankfully lives up to it.

 

Juno (2007)

Before you protest too much, consider that, as has been mentioned many times before and even generated controversy over a Genie Award nomination snub, its director Jason Reitman is Canadian, its two leads Michael Cera and Ellen Page are Canadian, its crew is Canadian, and it was shot in Canada, so dammit I’m going to count it as a Canadian teen film. Regardless of your stance on teenage pregnancy, Juno’s decision to have the baby is entirely her own, which alone makes her as a compelling character, to say nothing of her intelligence and charm.

 

Ginger Snaps (2000)

After being bitten by a werewolf or “lycanthrope”, Ginger Fitzgerald changes so rapidly her younger sister Brigitte can barely recognize her anymore, in more ways than one. By far the most brooding film on the list, Ginger Snaps revels in the dark atmosphere it creates. But even though it dabbles in teen angst it uses it to good effect, namely as fuel for a tight, well-paced story.

If we’re going to take the metaphoric route, maybe the werewolf thing is a bit on the nose as a stand-in for puberty like some critics have argued. But let’s not forget that puberty is confusing, awkward, and some times you do feel like a freakshow while it’s happening, that some times–subtlety be damned!–a monster is the best way to portray that inner turmoil.

But even if we just take it for face value and not make lycanthropy a metaphor for something else, it’s still a solid movie. A film like this is in danger of descending into camp at every turn, but that doesn’t really happen, partly because it’s fully able poke fun at itself, but moreso because you fully sympathize with the Fitzgerald sisters, and this is because the writing is smart and it’s driven by two great performances by Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle.

What also makes this film interesting is that, unlike the protagonists of other teen horror films, these ones aren’t merely the potential victims of some male twisted predator that stalks their every move. They have more agency here, and the film is just much about their actions and their relationship as it is about the monster.

TFS Essentials: the One Week soundtrack

When I first watched  One Week  I loved it, but even then it seemed so stuffed with Canadiana that I suspected that it was a thinly (very, very thinly) veiled advertisement by the Canadian Tourism Commission. But never mind appearances of the Stanley Cup, the Tim Horton’s Roll Up the Rim cup saying “Go West, Young Man”, virtually every major landmark between Toronto and Tofino, or the German tourists singing our country’s praises. One crucial element that makes this movie definitively Canadian, even moreso than the sites and landscapes, is the music.

The film is a great reminder of how gobsmackingly huge Canada is, and that one quintessential Canadian activity is to take a road trip and experience that hugeness and be gobsmacked firsthand, and what road trip is complete without great tunes for those long stretches on the Trans-Canada Highway?

The refreshing thing about this is that most of the music in this soundtrack is from the past 10 years or so. Musicians like the Barenaked Ladies, Gordon Lightfoot, Jann Arden, and Stompin’ Tom Connors are now household names across this country, but they’re far from all that’s out there and–I mean no disrespect to those household names–it’s kind of refreshing that the usual suspects don’t show up on this soundtrack. One Week is already five-years-old and Canadian music has already morphed into something else since then, and a good song is a good song regardless of when it was released, but all the same there’s something exciting about newer artists being given the chance to redefine the playlist of a nation.

"One Week" even has Canadian musicians appear on screen. Here's the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie with Joshua Jackson.
“One Week” even has Canadian musicians appear on screen. Here’s the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie with Joshua Jackson.

Some of the artists here aren’t obscure by any standard–Sam Roberts and Wintersleep are probably the most mainstream names on the soundtrack, and it also features indie and alt-rock giants like The Stars, Joel Plaskett, and Patrick Watson–but I would argue that this movie elevates them to something more iconic; it does the same for musicians that are slightly lower-profile but equal in calibre, like The Sunparlour Players, Selina Martin, and Melissa McClelland. The sounds range from the gentle, folksy, and introspective melodies of Great Lake Swimmers’ Imaginary Bars  and Patrick Watson’s Great Escape , to the uppity gallop of Selina Martin’s 20 Miles  to Joel Plaskett’s raucous A Million Dollars , to Hugh Oliver singing a little ditty called Oh Canada  and expressing how much we all love this country (but never take our patriotism too seriously). It’s also interesting to note that the majority of the musicians on here are singer-songwriters, a category Canada has always been exceptional in.

I argue that this soundtrack is a definitive Canadian soundtrack, if for no other reason than because virtually every musician on here is not only Canadian but is actually based in Canada too. But that’s not the only reason; thankfully these songs also happen to be good too. What’s more, while this film manages to evoke that paradox of feeling both tiny and expansive at the same time whenever we encounter Canada’s vistas, the choice of music compliments that feeling perfectly. Canada is full to bursting with talent in film as well as music, and I think One Week is a marriage of the best of both. But even if the movie was crap the soundtrack would make you believe it wasn’t. The One Week soundtrack is by no means the definitive Canadian soundtrack of all time, but it is without a doubt a definitive Canadian soundtrack of its own time.

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Review: Much Ado About Nothing



Much Ado About Nothing is a film full of love, sex, spying and scandal by director Joss Whedon and acclaimed screenwriter William Shakespeare. Don Pedro and his fellow officers Claudio and Benedick have just returned from a war and now it’s time to celebrate, at the estate of their friend and ally Leonato. Once there Claudio falls almost instantly in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero, and after just one night of partying Hero is wooed with the help of Don Pedro (played by Reed Diamond,  Dollhouse ) and by morning the two are betrothed. To kill time until their wedding day, the friends and houseworkers conspire to set up Benedick, a self-styled bachelor for life, with Beatrice, Hero’s cousin and Benedick’s equal in an ongoing battle of wits. Meanwhile Pedro’s illegitimate brother Don John hatches a plot of his own, to frame Hero for infidelity on the night before her wedding, and ruin the lives of everybody involved.

With this elegant new adaptation Joss Whedon proves that Shakespeare knows better than most how to write a solid romantic comedy. And fans of Joss Whedon’s previous film and TV projects will be thrilled to see familiar faces from his previous projects like The Avengers , Cabin in the Woods , and Firefly .

The story takes place at the estate of Leonato (played by Clark GreggThe Avengers ), which could easily be somewhere in southern California. The party-goers wear beautiful masks and tuxedoes and drink cocktails and at the piano a singer sings “hey nonny nonny” and actually sounds like a lounge singer and not an Elizabethan English peasant. It’s not the first time Shakespeare’s been “modernized” in this way, but Whedon does an admirable job of making this story feel hip and contemporary without doing it in a superficial, gimmicky way. It doesn’t pull a Baz Luhrmann and overload your senses with spectacle, and although it is stylistically done and supported by the classy modern setting, the performance of the actors themselves is what makes this version feel fresh; they make the language sparkle and shine, and bring it to life in the 21st century; even though it does take a few minutes to adjust the ear to the language, you do get used to it and it sounds like everyday speech.

Whedon and Shakespeare may likely never have been mentioned in the same sentence before, but Whedon’s penchant for sharp, witty dialogue and strong female characters lends itself surprisingly well to the Bard, best demonstrated in the characters of Beatrice and Benedick, both too proud to admit they may have feelings for each other, and who would sooner engage in verbal sparring than get together and feel alright. But they enjoy that sparring, and that’s what makes them so much fun to watch.

Hero and Claudio’s plotline is much more of a straight romance, but Jillian Morgese and Fran Kranz ( Cabin In the Woods ) bring all the innocence and nervous energy to the characters to make you still invest in them, especially when things turn horribly awry in their relationship. But Beatrice and Benedick are the true romantic leads, which is interesting because they’re the more comedic pair, unusual for the rom-com formula. Amy Acker ( The Cabin in the Woods ) and Alexis Denisof  ( The Avengers ) bring a good dose of goofiness to the roles, and although there are times when they verge on caricature, they play off each other really well. Sean Maher ( Serenity, Firefly ) does a great job as the under-written Don John, making him as brooding and charming as a villain should be without ever going over the top.

On the opposite end of the ardent lovers and the malicious Don John stands the bumbling constable Dogberry, Verges, and the watchmen. Completely endearing in their incompetence, their scenes are without a doubt the funniest, as Dogberry, brilliantly performed by Nathan Fillion ( Serenity , Firefly ), piles one ridiculous malapropism after another while they pursue the perpetrators of Don John’s schemes.

Is Much Ado About Nothing Opening-Weekend Worthy?

If you’re a hardcore Whedonite or Bardolator you’re probably going to go see this one, regardless of what I say. But even if you’re only somewhat familiar with either, Much Ado About Nothing is worth catching on opening weekend. Never mind the reputation of either; it’s simply an all around good movie, a solid and paradoxically original romantic comedy–likely better than any other rom-coms Tinsel Town is going to churn out this summer.

Much Ado About Nothing Trailer

Much Ado About Nothing Production Gallery

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Spotlight On: The Screen Composers Guild of Canada

This month we’re looking at music in film, so it seemed only natural that we pay our respects not only to the people who make sure there actually is music in our films, but to the people who make sure there are people making music for our films. Introducing: The Screen Composers Guild of Canada.

I spoke with member of the SCGC Board of Directors and composer of Road to Avonlea John Welsman about the changing landscape of media composing, and the role the SCGC plays in representing Canadian composers. He tells me that today composers find themselves in an industry dominated by reality TV, with fewer and fewer documentaries and dramas being produced. On the other hand, new media has opened up new markets for composers: in video games, internet, and other multimedia productions. And new technology has of course affected the way screen composers make music. “It used to be done with pencil and paper, and maybe a piano demo of how the themes and cues would sound,” says Welsman. “Getting approval of themes and cues involved a leap of faith on the part of the director or producer. Only at the recording stage with live musicians playing the score would all parties hear what the composer actually had in mind. And by then it was probably too late to do too much altering of the composer’s work.”

Now composing involves computer software, which Welsman says “allows the composer to hear pretty close to the final sound of the score as they’re doing the composing…the software works like a word processing  program for music, as the process can involve a great deal of editing and tweaking of sounds and sound effects, sampling and manipulating of those samples. The palette of instruments and sounds available is endless. I sometimes look at the composing as a process of making thousands of decisions each day about what the music isn’t going to be or sound like. There are so many possibilities for a creative mind, and that’s where we come full circle back to the job being to make all those musical decisions that help focus the scene and give it dimension and help the audience experience it in a way they wouldn’t if music weren’t there.”

In spite of all this Welsman insists the screen composer’s job is essentially the same as it ever was. “Composing still involves a creative mind that has probably trained for years in the theory and techniques of music and composition. The composer considers the story being told in film or video, the director’s wishes for how music will help tell that story, choosing and working with instruments and notes, chords and rhythms that provide a musical backdrop for the scene.”

scgc-2011-1

The SCGC originated with composers Ben PcPeek, Harry Freedman, and Glenn Morley when in January of 1980 they founded the Guild of Canadian Film Composers. National in scope, the “Guild” was intended to help represent professional composers, and work as a way for its members to share ideas and resources. Its focus was largely on educational seminars and workshops until 1998, when it started helping its members on the business side of things. It’s different from a union, but with similar legal powers, like the ability to partake in collective bargaining on the behalf of members, non-members, and even professionals who may not be composers but still work in the same field, like arrangers, orchestrators, and music editors.

Welsman himself got involved with the Guild in the mid-’90s, after working on Avonlea for six years. “I’d heard of the organisation for some time, and thought it was time to check out a meeting. I remember a meeting of a group of 10 or 15 composers talking about the state of the art, comparing notes, and discussing issues of common concern.” He stayed involved with the Guild, and eventually he was elected to the Board of Directors. Welsman believes that professional and aspiring composers alike will have strength in numbers. “New members find a generous SCGC community eager to contribute with technical tips, business advice, and other forms of help,” Welsman says. “People believe that ‘a rising tide raises all ships,’ and strive to help every member be the best they can be so that Canada remains known and respected for it’s excellent composers.”

This is crucial now, especially as composers living and working in Canada face ever shrinking budgets. “We all know that everyone’s being asked to do more with less, but it feels like music budgets are diminished to the point of being out of whack with the value of a good score to the success of a film. Another way to look at it would be to take the score away, and see what impact that has on the viewing experience. Producers and directors would all agree that music contributes arguably 30% or more to the experience of a film–even up to 50%. So how is it that music budgets have shrunk to 1% or often even less of the overall production budget? At the end of the day, a shrinking music budget means everything about music shrinks — less live musicians, less time to be creative and do the job that’s needed for the score, and final mixes that might not sound as good as they ought to because the composer hasn’t enough money to hire an independent mixing engineer — they do that job themselves. The SCGC feels that challenge in the sense that composers are more and more asking how they can continue to make a living doing what they do. It’s hard to turn work down, but when your hourly rate ends up around $15, that plumbing job starts to look really good.”

In times like these the Guild works as a voice in discussions that affect the livelihood of screen composers at all levels, Welsman says. “It seems the industry needs a little reminder about music and the tremendous value a good score will bring to the final result, and the SCGC is here to provide that reminder.”

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Review: Epic



Epic is about a teenage girl who finds herself caught in the middle of a massive battle between good and evil when she is brought to the world of the Leafmen, an elite band of tiny warriors sworn to protect the forest from the Boggans, a ghoulish army bent on destroying it.

M.K. (played by Amanda Seyfried) tries reconnect with her estranged father, the quirky, absent-minded and reclusive Professor Bomba (Jason Sudeikis), who devotes his life to seeking out a hidden miniature civilization living in the woods. M.K. is naturally worried about her dad’s sanity, but when Tara (Beyoncé Knowles), Queen of the Leafmen–and life of the forest itself–comes under attack while choosing a new heir (in the form of a flower pod) M.K. becomes shrunken by Tara’s magic and enlisted to help the Leafmen save their world, and make sure the Boggans and their ruler Mandrake don’t tip the scales in favour of rot and ruin. M.K. gets helps from Ronin, the commander of the Leafmen (Colin Farrell), Nod, a rebellious young Leafman in Ronin’s care (Josh Hutcherson), Mub and Grub (Aziz Ansari, Chris O’Dowd), a slug and snail duo charged with protecting the heir-pod, and Nim Galuu (Steven Tyler), a charismatic, charming, and wise old caterpillar. Together they must bring the pod to the safety of Moonhaven, the Kingdom of the Leafmen, before the full moon.

Blue Sky Studios, director Chris Wedge and the creators of Ice Age Trilogy  and Rio bring all their animation chops to Epic , resulting in their most visually satisfying film yet. The forest the characters live in feels rich, full and textured. But while the visuals make Epic a real pleasure to watch there isn’t much groundbreaking material in the story itself, with a great deal of familiar territory being covered here. While the dialogue is funny and intelligent and the characters likeable, it’s a little bit predictable when hummingbirds, flowers and tiny but beautiful humanoid beings equals Good, while bats, crows, underground rodents equal Evil, and you never really doubt who’s going to win in the end.

Mandrake, the evil lord of decay (played by Christoph Waltz) is a classic dark lord type, dangerous because everything he touches with his staff dies instantly. And although his vocal stylings aren’t always successful in making Mandrake seem threatening, Waltz does bring a performance that makes him a little more unique among the cartoon rogues’ gallery. M.K. isn’t a warrior-type but thankfully she’s still scrappy and never falls into the damsel-in-distress stereotype. Mub and Grub are the obvious comic relief, but everybody, even the more dower characters like Ronin get to show their funny side. What also makes this film unique from others like it is how the conflict comes from within this microcosmic universe, and doesn’t get too preachy with any themes of humans versus the natural world (see: Avatar , Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest ); that worldview is assumed from the get-go.

Is Epic opening-weekend worthy?

You can definitely wait until after opening weekend to catch this one. But even though there are moments when you might feel like you’ve seen this movie before, the 3-D does compliment the visuals without being distracting, and its adventure, action and humour are enough to make it worth taking the trip to the theatre with your kids (or your significant other/friends/self).

Epic Trailer

Epic Production Gallery

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Meet the TFS Writers: Liam Volke

It wasn’t until I started writing for Toronto Film Scene that I started seriously looking at who and what made me fall in love with film in the first place. It was then that I realised how much of an influence Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had on me as a kid. The earliest films I remember seeing that weren’t either a cartoon or less than 30 minutes long were Hook , Jaws , the original Star Wars trilogy , Indiana Jones , and Jurassic Park . My mom claims that when I was really young I tried to find George Lucas’ number in our phone book (we lived in Regina, Saskatchewan). I’d have to brush up on my Joseph Campbell to fully understand why young boys like me are drawn to these kinds of movies, but the effect is as strong as a tractor beam from the Death Star. Or the Enterprise, for that matter. Yes, sci-fi, fantasy and adventure were where it was at. Star Trek , Alien , X-Men –if it had space, robots, aliens, pirates, superheroes, or all of the above, I devoured it like the all-powerful sarlacc. They were pure adventure, pure story, and I was happy to discover later in life that some of them were actually pretty good.

When I entered puberty I went through a phase where I almost exclusively watched Oscar-winning, sprawling historical and biographical epics: Lawrence of Arabia , Ben-Hur , The Ten Commandments , Spartacus , Gandhi , Amadeus , The Last Emperor . Unless it was pushing 3-hours in length, it wasn’t worth my time (which I apparently had heaps of). I’m amazed I had the attention span to watch these movies when I was 12-13 years old, but there you have it.

“Go epic or go home!” said 12-year-old Liam Volke

In high school I branched out a little more and decided it was okay if the movie had neither swords nor sandals. Being in musical theatre I discovered Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story , Chicago and Cabaret . I didn’t like Grease , and I still don’t. At the same time I also developed a fierce love for tragic and dark comedies. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life , Brazil , Dr. Strangelove , Little Miss Sunshine –one by one these ridiculous movies made their way into my personal canon. Some filmmakers I gravitated to more often than others, and I never thought about it until just now but they tended to be the auteur-ish types, like Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Michel Gondry, Hayao Miyazaki, Wes Anderson, and Christopher Nolan (yes, I count him as one). I’d like to think this makes me sophisticated (even if their movies were in no way obscure by the time I got my hands on them).

During University I worked two summers at a Rogers Video (remember those?), and if the pay was better it would have been the best job ever. Easy, accommodating to my night-owl lifestyle, and you got to talk about movies with other people who liked movies. There I finally knocked a few iconic films off my to-see list and saw The Godfather , Akira , and The Breakfast Club . Sadly Ghostbusters , both I and II, are still on that list.

Somehow my love for telling stories turned into a degree in theatre, but the roots of that same passion come out of film (most of my favourite actors still do theatre, but it’s because of their work in film that I love them so much).

For a cinephile my library is incredibly small, which could either mean that I have very selective tastes, or it could mean I am a cheapskate. I will choose to believe the former.

Through Toronto Film Scene I’ve had the joy of discovering new films and filmmakers that I may not have otherwise. In the meantime here are some films that I will always go back to:

Liam’s Must-See Films

Hook

Hook (1991) – This movie got pretty poor reviews, and even though it’s partially my nostalgia talking, I do think this movie holds up well, with a rich palette, an imaginatively stylized Never-Neverland, and great performances from Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman. And all that imaginary food at the Lost Boys’ feast always looks so damn tasty!

Adam’s Apples (2005) – What does a neo-nazi, the Book of Job and apple pie all have in common? This movie, that’s what. It’s bizarre and Danish and hilarious. Better go see it.

Four Lions (2010) – This UK film is about the most incompetent Islamic terrorists ever to strap explosives to their bodies in search of Paradise. It is one of the darkest and also one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – This one is almost four hours long, with only male actors, and audaciously slow pacing at times…and somehow you can’t take your eyes off it.

The Great Dictator (1940) – Humour and irony are great weapons against tyranny, and Chaplin’s first talking picture is a testament to that. Chaplin said he’d never have made this film if he knew about all of the atrocities the Nazis committed. This feels wrong to say, but I’m kind of glad he didn’t know.

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A conversation with Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond, Directors of The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne



At first glance, there’s nothing about Doris Payne that screams “jewel thief”. But this 82-year old African-American woman from West Virginia has in fact stolen at least $2 million in jewels in a career that’s spanned five decades. I recently spoke with directors Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond about their new documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne , and their experiences working with Doris to bring her story to the screen.

Doris is obviously quite an actor. Were there times when you felt you were taken in by her?

Kirk Marcolina: Without a doubt. I feel like every day we’d film with her we’d be driving back home and saying, “Is she telling the truth? Is she not telling the truth?” Because you could never know when she was playing a role and making something up, never knew when she was being honest with you. For the longest time we weren’t sure. And then we got her FBI files about a year and a half into the process, and they backed up almost everything she said.

Matthew Pond: Well, at least for some of the time and some of the FBI files backed her up. There were certainly things where she led us down the garden path.

She’s certainly good at weaving a tale.

MP: She’s a great storyteller, for sure. And that’s part of the joy of spending time with Doris. She, at this point in her life, you know she’s 82 and she has some fabulous, fascinating stories, and when she’s reliving it, she does that with a certain amount of joy and nostalgia, and it’s just a lovely experience when she’s like that. When she’s not ripping us a new one, and we’re, like, pulling all our hair out.

Did that happen a lot?

KM: Oh yes.

MP: There’s many Doris Paynes, I think. Many different personalities within that one person.

So how did you actually find out about her?

MP: I read about her in a newspaper and I thought “what a great story”. It’s a perfect marriage of character and story. And I had just freshly arrived in Los Angeles and I was looking for a project, and so I went to visit her unannounced, she was in jail for another crime at the time, and did that for a few months. And when she got out Kirk and I started filming shortly thereafter.

Did it take much to convince her to do this project?

MP: Yes and no. I mean, she likes the camera and I think she’s interested in having a legacy and I think she would like her legacy to be of the glamourous, international jet-setter. So she was interested in sharing those parts of her life. She was a little guarded with her family and the more personal aspects. But it wasn’t really difficult to coax things out of her.

KM: She’s proud of what she’s done. She’s proud of being a jewel thief. And she, like Matthew said, I think she wants her legacy reported for other people to know about and she was excited by the opportunity to regale us with her stories, especially from the ’60s and ’70s when she was jet-setting around the world and stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of rings.

Do you think there’s still a sense of romanticism around the whole idea of being a jewel thief?

MP: She identifies as being a jewel thief. She puts down on government forms, like, “occupation: jewel thief”.

KM: She romanticizes her past certainly. I think it’s become harder for her, I mean she’s older so it’s harder for her because she’s not as quick as she used to be and it’s also harder because of the security cameras. But as the narrator in the film says, it’s a testament to her that she can just get out the door at this age without getting caught. And she is, because she’s so darn charming. She really is. I wish she could be here ‘cause you’d fall in love with her in five minutes. Everybody does.

The charming and infamous Doris Payne.
The charming and infamous Doris Payne.

What is your own creative dynamic together [as directors]? Have you done projects before?

MP: No. It’s our first one. So we really were partners on this film, we produced it together, we directed it together, we did the PA work together, our VISA cards were both charged for this film. There’s a lot of room for error when there are two directors involved, because there are all these creative choices, and I think we were really fortunate in the sense that there were no big creative arguments or fights.

KM: I joke with my husband that I’ve been married to Matt the last 3 years because of the film; I spend more time with him than my husband. And it has its ups and downs and the creative process is a tough process at times. But I think what’s nice about us working together is that our strengths and weaknesses are opposite in a lot of ways, we compliment each other in a way and we sort of support each other in our weaknesses. And that’s worked out really nicely.

Have you ever done a project like this before? With a subject as…

MP: Difficult. I mean, let’s not sugarcoat it. She was very difficult and challenging to work with.

KM: But also very forthcoming at the same time. And she would sit there–literally we have, I don’t know, over 20 hours of footage of her just talking.

MP: More than 20. More than that.

KM: Tons. She would sit and talk forever. And that was one of the challenges.  She’d start going off on this tangent that we knew we couldn’t use and you’d try to stop her and get her on track and she’s like “no no no I gotta finish the story.”

MP: And she’s calling the shots…and if there were issues or stories that she didn’t want to talk about, she made it very clear that she wasn’t gonna do it and so we kind of had to follow her lead a lot of the time.

What do you think about someone who believes that they can compartmentalize their own morals from this one part of their life? Do you think it’s possible?

KM: She says everybody does it. She says no one is free from doing that; she pointed out Bernie Madoff. She says everybody–look at any successful businessman. In her eyes, they did something that broke the law to get them to that point.

MP: She definitely has done some mental gymnastics to get to where she is and do what she does.

KM: She certainly thinks she’s a very moral person…and she’s not really hurting anyone in her eyes, because she’s stealing from these department stores that have insurance, they’re gonna get paid, anyway–they’re actually gonna make money on the deal. That’s the way she looks at it, whether right or wrong but that’s certainly how she justified herself.

MP: I think if you look at Doris in historical terms, in terms of race and class, the cards were stacked against her. If she didn’t cut some corners, there’s no way this poor little black girl in West Virginia in the 1930s would’ve been able to travel the world first-class, staying in fabulous hotels, unless she did what she did or she won the lottery or something, so…I see her point.

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne screens at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this Wednesday, May 1. For more details, visit the Hot Docs website.

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Essential Canadian Cinema: A Married Couple

Since it’s documentary month here at TFS, we thought we’d look at A Married Couple , the classic Canadian doc by Allan King. Is it indeed a “classic” worth putting on our essential viewing list? Liam Volke and Harry Cepka discuss.

Liam: A Married Couple is an “actuality drama” directed by Allan King about a young married couple living their day to day lives while raising their 3-year old son and trying to keep their marriage from falling apart, and the simple idea of filming their lives seems strangely familiar in our reality-TV culture. The irony is how this 44-year-old documentary film rings more true and comes closer to “reality” than anything you’ll find on MTV or TLC. The premise of this film is so simple, and going into it I was concerned it was a cool idea in theory but not in execution. How wrong I was.

Harry: I agree with your comparison to reality TV, and I’d go further with it: I think the reason that A Married Couple compares favorably to today’s reality shows is that it’s not really manipulated. Our couple, Billy and Antoinette, aren’t being made to compete in elimination challenges, go to artificial social events or talk smack in some kind of post-show confession booth. They’re just told to live as they normally would. Cut all the sensationalism and things become far more interesting – and real.

Liam: I can’t say I really liked these people, but the whole premise seemed so simple yet so bizarre, and somehow King’s blend of fiction and reality kept me riveted. It was weird and hilarious and it made me uncomfortable at times, and like a car crash in excruciatingly slow motion I couldn’t keep my eyes off it. Antoinette and Billy argue over things every married couple might argue over. On paper the content is about as humdrum as you can get. Some of their arguments come off as downright asinine, but each one is a battleground where every innocuous little comment is a blow in a struggle for domestic power.

Harry: I think that this “cinema verite” model works better in many ways than a scripted equivalent. Imagine some team of writers trying to sculpt a story about a typical Canadian family. That effort is almost doomed to fail; the quintessential Canadian family doesn’t really exist. Ironically, A Married Couple feels like it could be any Canadian couple. Put a crew in a home, let things unfold and you might get something you couldn’t otherwise make up. A Married Couple feels effortless and authentic, attributes which I rarely come across in Canadian-made media.

Liam: I don’t know if I agree that a scripted project would fail because there is no archetypal Canadian family, and to be fair I think lots of great family dramas have been made inspired by real life. But for me it always comes back to the fact that this IS real life and the fact that you as the audience member know this makes it even weirder and more interesting.

Harry: I love this model, because it doesn’t get dated: A Married Couple is undeniably a late ’60s movie, and that’s the point. We get an intimate window into life back then: whatever was filmed is what happened in a house in 1969. I feel like filmmakers should be using such a technique more, because it acts both as an art piece and a historical document. I would happily watch the ’80s version of A Married Couple , the ’90s version and so on. It even feels like those would be important projects to film.

a married couple 2

Liam: I wonder what a 2013 version of this would be like? If there’s no quintessential Canadian family, it’s because there are SO many kinds of families to choose from. But I’ll bet there are less of them quite like the Edwardses. You can tell Billy feels like he is the head of the household and Antoinette must subordinate herself to his will. But this was also filmed at a time when women were asserting themselves and gaining more of a voice in the public and private sphere than ever before, and not to get too abstract about it but you do feel those two paradigms clashing in their household.

If anything I’d say the film seems to favour Antoinette as we get to know them both. We’re given less insight into Billy’s insecurities about the marriage, and when we are it’s still given from Antoinette’s point of view, so when he’s onscreen he just comes off as a pompous, domineering asshole most of the time. But the proof is in the pudding: he means the things he says on camera. Maybe he just IS an asshole! Antoinette isn’t portrayed as a victim by any stretch of the imagination. She could definitely hold her own with Billy and could be equally petty and unfair, knowing exactly what buttons to push and when. They can each be equally annoying, but they’re both such charismatic people that you’ll watch them anyway.

Harry: And following that word “charismatic,” Billy and Antoinette are both performers at heart – which I suppose does set them apart. Their fights are theatrical, their voices are strong and they’re not camera shy. These things do add up to good drama and maybe an exceptional family situation. No matter how minimal the camera’s presence, this situation is still artificial. Intimate scenes are played out in a setting that is no longer intimate. Their adaptability to such a situation suggests that maybe they want an audience – maybe their performances are enhanced in front of the camera. Maybe without a viewer, Billy and Antoinette’s dialogues would be less over the top and stubborn. With a witness, you want to come out the winner.

Is A Married Couple Essential Canadian Cinema?

Harry: I think that A Married Couple is a Canadian gem. This experiment could be replicated anywhere at any time, but it happened in 1969 in Toronto. Thanks to Allan King, we know a couple from this time and place as well as we might know a sibling or parents. Somehow, King manages to capture the repellent and the tender, balance these two opposing feelings and create a full, complex and rewarding film. I say ‘yes’ to essential Canadian cinema.

Liam: The film itself as a story is completely engrossing, and powerful in its simplicity. I second the motion that A Married Couple is essential Canadian Cinema, and I’d gladly go through its discomforts and joys again just to expose my friends to it.

The Final Verdict

Looks like we have a winner! A Married Couple joins The Sweet Hereafter and The Dark Hours on our Essential Canadian Cinema list. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments below!

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Toronto Jewish Film Fest Review: Koch



Koch is a documentary about the political career of one of the most famous mayors of New York City, Edward Irving Koch. It charts his unlikely rise to the top of the political heap, the constant skirmishes he fought once there, his political downfall, and his life after being king of New York. Koch is a portrait of a controversial and often contradictory man, both intensely private and fiercely political, but more than that it is a fascinating glimpse into one of the most tumultuous years of New York City in the 20th century, a city at the height of decadence, and in the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic.

First time director Neil Barsky delivers a pretty straightforward political biopic here. It opens with 86-year-old Koch in his very active post-mayoral career as he goes around endorsing candidates for municipal and state elections. As he reflects on his own political career the narrative then follows suit and dips into a past replete with news footage, interviews and photographs, which occupy the bulk of the film. It shows a younger Koch, a U.S. congressman running for Mayor at the end of the ’70s, asking people on the street “How’m I doing?” which became his catchphrase. He’s an underdog in the election but he wins anyway, and then the film follows his mayoralty year by year, one crisis after another while Koch attempts to drag New York out of a recession.

Barsky is skillful at compiling footage to highlight the moments where Koch really shines as a political personality, like when he passed a bill to protect gay people from discrimination in the workplace; and perhaps his greatest legacy, the Ten-Year Housing Plan, an ambitious, multi-billion dollar affordable housing project to rejuvenate the heavily impoverished neighbourhoods in Harlem and the Bronx.

Barsky isn’t afraid of exposing the warts as well: it covers his decision to close down a hospital in Harlem which triggered major backlash from the black community; his inaction during the AIDS crisis which triggered major backlash especially from the gay community; and the huge corruption scandal in his administration that led to his undoing as Mayor. He is despised by many, accused of being a racist and an opportunist; and of course the answer is never as clear and simple as that. Each event in the film builds up a picture of a man who was a staunch Democrat all his life and by turns deeply conservative, and ever the enigma.

The film is unclear on the nature of his personal life, but that is also because he was very private; he never married or had children, and he refused to declare his sexual orientation despite increasing public pressure. There’s a scene of him later in his life debating the Ground Zero Mosque with his family during Yom Kippur, suggesting that even with his family he was a political animal to the core.

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’d never even heard of Ed Koch before seeing this film. But I can say that while the film offers nothing groundbreaking in the documentary genre, the material itself is engaging enough. Barsky weaves a good story out of Koch’s career and it’s a pleasure to watch it unfold.

Is Koch Essential TJFF Viewing?

If political biographies aren’t your subgenre of choice, I’d say don’t feel bad if you miss this one or decide to see something else at TJFF. If it is up your alley then by all means check it out. Even if, like me, you didn’t know much (or anything) about Mr. Koch.

Koch Screening Time

Koch Trailer

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