Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza

    6 May 2010, early morning

After B1 we walked over to Isabel Bader to watch Aisheen: Still Alive in Gaza. The film is a look at the lives of the people in Gaza following their most recent war with Israel, and the sanctions that came with Hamas coming to power. The movie opens with the manager of a playground taking a child around a haunted house that was bombed by the Israeli army. From there we move from one story to the next, meeting people whose lives are broken, stuck in limbo, or both. The film is a series of monologues and conversations. The boredom and frustration is palatable. There is an undercurrent of anger that flares up on occasion. The spectre of Hamas seems to hang over everything. The film is a bit slow, but I think this helps tell the story: life in Gaza looks to be slow. The screening was packed. I think films about the Middle East attract a large audience here in Toronto. Aisheen was a well thought out film. The Q&A that followed was surprisingly good, for a change.

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B1 and Geral

    5 May 2010, terribly early in the morning

B1 has to be one of the best documentaries i’ve ever seen. The film is a look at the life of Antonio TenĂ³rio da Silva, a blind Brazillian Judo champion. The film follows him as he prepares to compete in the Beijing Paralympics. The title of the film comes from the way competitors are classified: a B1 fighter is completely blind. TenĂ³rio is an inspiring figure. His first olympics were in 1996, and he won gold. He also won gold in 2000 and 2004. Beijing was his 4th attempt at a gold medal, competing at the age of 37. To train he fights competitors who can see, who are nearly half his age, because they pose more of a challenge for him. The dedication he puts into his training is incredible. The film is also a facinating look at the Paralympics, and the camaraderie of the competitors. All the Judo competitors seem to be very friendly with one another. The film is shot really well. You are right up there with the competitors during fights. More impressive is the sound. You really hear ever slam to the mat. The screening of B1 we saw wasn’t sold out. I have no idea how a film about a Blind judoka doesn’t sell out. Do yourself a favour and try and catch the second screening.

The film screened with Geral, a short movie about Macana stadium in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a look at the energetic and passionate fans that come and cheer on their team. The film is all drums and cheering and noise. It’s really well done, and compliments B1 perfectly.

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    4 May 2010, early morning

My second screening at Hot Docs was Candy Man: The David Klein Story. David Klein is the man who created and marketed Jelly Belly jellybeans. Klein is eventually forced out of the company he started by his partners, and is written out of any corporate history of the product. The film is compelling because Klein is compelling. He’s a very charismatic and funny figure. His whole attitude towards life is refreshing and positive. The film is well produced and put together. The history of the Jelly Belly is surprisingly interesting. The film is basically a feel good movie. One of the producers was Klein’s son, so it can also be seen as an ode to his Dad.

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We Are & The Devil Operation

    3 May 2010, early morning

It will take more than a broken leg to keep me away from HotDocs. My favourite film festival in Toronto started this past Thursday. Shima, Riadh, and I attended our first screening on Friday; we watched The Devil Operation, which was screening with We Are.

The first film was a short by Kevin Papatie. Each scene begins with the narrator whispering a tie between the Natives and nature; for example, “We are the air.” In contrast to this narration, a young Native boy was filmed in front of corresponding scenes of decay: a factory polluting the air, clear cut trees, a broken home, etc. I think it’s hard to make a 3-minute long film that manages to make a point; this film certainly does.

The second film was the one we were all interested in seeing. The Devil Operation is a look at the conflict between Peruvian farmers and a foreign mining company. The film’s main protagonist is Father Marco Arana. At the start of the film he is mediating a dispute between the locals and the mining company, ultimately securing a win for the locals. As the film proceeds we learn about the costs he (and others) have to pay for defending a mountain from foreign interests. The film is a good overview of what’s going on in Peru with respect to mining and the gold industry. It’s always inspiring watching these stories about people doing important human rights work in countries where doing so puts you in very real danger. The director, Stephanie Boyd, has lived in Peru for 13 odd years now, and has made several films about the country. I enjoyed the film, but thought it might have been too sprawling. Boyd covers several stories, all related to mining, but not quite related to each other. I don’t know if something more focused would have worked better. Regardless, I think the film is well worth watching.

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Across the Universe

   29 December 2009, early morning

I watched Across the Universe over the weekend. Maybe on Christmas Day? That weekend is a bit of a blur now. The film is a musical, set in the 60s, which uses music by the Beatles. Visually it’s quite well done, but the rest of the movie seemed a bit weak. (And this is a film scored with Beatles music!) I thought they were trying a bit too hard to cram in as many Beatles songs as they could. There were several plot points on the go that didn’t really add anything to the main story. (Prudence? Why was she in the film at all?) More so, they touched on a lot of interesting issues without really putting much thought into any of them. Still, the movie looked pretty awesome in Bluray. After watching the movie we played The Beatles Rock Band game. Now that was awesome.

The official Across the Universe website.


City of Sadness

   25 November 2009, terribly early in the morning

I watched City of Sadness last night at Cinematheque. This is the 20th anniversary of the film, and it looks like they are touring a new print of the movie from cinema to cinema. The film is set during the period of unrest in Taiwan during 1945 – 1949), when the Chinese nationalist government took over control of the island from the Japanese. Director Hou Hsiao-hsien examines this unrest by following the lives of an extended family: a family patriarch and his 4 sons — one of whom is missing for the entire movie. (The film stars Tony Leung as the deaf youngest brother in the family the film follows. As one would expect, he’s awesome in the film.) The story is slow. The arc the plot travels in is strange, and it’s hard to sort out how all the pieces relate. I suppose ultimately the film is about conflict, in particular between the Taiwanese and the Mainland Chinese. It’s a beautiful movie; depressing, but not as depressing as I thought it would be. I was reminded of the film Yi Yi, by Edward Yang, a contemporary of Hou Hsiao-hsien. The film is probably not for everyone, but I quite enjoyed it.

City of Sadness at Cinematheque


Never Back Down

   25 September 2009, early morning

Over the last couple days, during lunch, my coworkers and I watched Never Back Down. Imagine The Karate Kid, but with people doing mixed-martial-arts. Jake Tyler plays the troubled kid who gets into fights and needs some guidance. (The dude looks like Tom Cruise, but younger; it’s kind of crazy.) The always awesome Djimon Hounsou plays the Mr. Miyagi character, a fellow from Senegal who grew up in Brazill and teaches Jujitsu in a gym he lives in. There is a bunch of fighting, chicks in bikinis since the film is set in Orlando, and more fighting. It’s more than a bit cliche, but it’s definitely better than I had thought it would be. It’s definitely no Flash Point.

Reviews of Never Back Down on Rotten Tomatoes.


Between Two Worlds

   21 September 2009, early morning

The final film I watched at the film festival was Between Two Worlds, a Sri Lankan film. I had watched the directors previous film, The Forsaken Land, a few years back at TIFF as well. I knew the film would be overly symbolic and art-house. I had underestimated just how art-house this movie would be. While The Forsaken Land was challenging to watch, and incredibly slow and meandering, it was well ultimately an interesting and compelling movie. Between Two Worlds was too obtuse. A man falls from the sky, wanders the Sri Lankan country side, and ultimately makes his way back home. His journey is probably some sort of allegory for the war in Sri Lanka, but I think you’d need to be watching the film with the director to figure out what’s what. The film is shot incredibly well. Sadly, that isn’t enough to make for a good film.

Between Two Worlds at the Auteurs website.


"I think that was his wife."

   18 September 2009, early morning

The Ape

Mez and I watched the Ape on Wednesday evening. It’s a story of unease and panic. There is really only one character of note in the film, and basically every shot in the movie features him in the frame. Most of the film is shot following him, giving the audience the sense we are chasing after him. There is almost no dialogue in the movie. For the first 3rd of the film you aren’t really sure what’s wrong, though you know something definitely is. (If you’re reasonably astute, you can probably guess much earlier what has happened.) The film was interesting, but I don’t think it was good. It’s filmed well, and I think it was well put together. The acting is great. The problem is the story just isn’t that compelling.

The Ape on the Auteurs website.

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   17 September 2009, terribly early in the morning

My friends and I went to the Ryerson theatre Tuesday night to watch Johnie To’s latest film, Vengeance. In a nice change of pace, the film wasn’t playing at midnight, but at a much more reasonable 9:15. Colin Geddes influence looks to have extended out of the Midnight Madness program. Vengeance was an entertaining film. A French man arrives in Macau after his daughter and her family are killed by hit men. He then proceeds to find another set of hit men to help him exact his revenge. Well, there is a bit more to it than that. It’s very much a To film. There are a some really great shoot outs, interesting characters, and some moody atmosphere. During the Q&A the audience learned the original star of the film was to be Alain Delon, the lead in Le Samourai. For whatever reason this didn’t end up working out, but the producers found French rock-god Johnny Hallyday to play the role. He was pretty awesome, if only because he looks so strange. Also, he has a great jacket in the movie. The film also stars some great HK actors: Anthony Wong is as usual excellent playing one of the hit men; and you can’t make a film in HK without casting Simon Yam. The film was quite enjoyable.

The official Vengeance website.

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Women Without Men

   15 September 2009, the wee hours

The second film I watched at the film festival was Women Without Men. The film is set in Iran, based on a book with the same name, but is a French production. I believe it was filmed in Morocco. The movie chronicles the lives of 4 women living in Iran, circa 1953, just before the American & British backed coup. Each women encounters some sort of hardship, and ends up wandering to this mysterious orchard. The film was a little bit too surreal at times: I find with films that are for the most part realistic depictions of life, introducing fantastic elements rarely works well. I find it hard to connect to the characters, since it’s unclear what’s ‘real’. The actress who plays the prostitute does an excellent job. The scene with her in the bathhouse is really well done. It’s a very pretty film, and the story is interesting enough, but on the whole I thought the film was lacking. There is certainly a lot of buzz around the film, so I might just be an idiot.

Woman Without Men at the Auteurs website.


City of Life and Death

   14 September 2009, terribly early in the morning

My first film of the festival was City of Life and Death, which was absolutely stunning. Shot in black and white, the film looks gorgeous. Each shot could be a photograph. This is all in great contrast to the films subject matter, which is about the Rape of Nanking. The movie is relentless. The film opens with the Japanese army advancing on the city. There is a pretty exciting battle, which the few Chinese soldiers who remain in the city ultimately lose. And then come mass executions. And all sorts of other atrocities. We are introduced to characters, develop a rapport with them, only to have them die. There are lots of close up shots of peoples faces. These sorts of shots show up again and again in the film. People we are never introduced to, and who never show up in the film again, will be featured in this way on the screen for a few seconds. An attempt to humanize an event that has become a list of statistics? I think so. The two lead Japanese actors in the film both incredible to watch. The film ends, more or less, with a victory dance through the city. That whole sequence is one of the best things i’ve seen shot on film. I can’t praise this film enough.

Apparently there was some controversy in China over the films release: people thought the Japanese soldiers were too sympathetic. The lead in the film is a conflicted soldier. He’s the only constant through out the film. The audience is probably supposed to identify with him. Soldiers are seen playing with Chinese children and giving them candy. They sing and dance with one another. They joke around. This certainly does humanize them, but does it make them sympathetic? I don’t think so, because it doesn’t justify any of their actions. They are still raping and killing people. They are behaving like beasts, but they aren’t beasts they are people. This is actually what makes these sorts of events all the more horrific. Lu Chuan should be commended for not making the Japanese soldiers into caricatures.

City of Life and Death at the Autheurs website. I watched the film with my friends, and L has written about the movie as well.

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Inglourious Basterds

   11 September 2009, terribly early in the morning

Late Wednesday night Vinnie, Mezan, and I watched Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s latest film. The commercials might make the film look like its focus is on a group of Jewish-American soldiers who spend their time killing and maiming Nazis, but there is quite a bit more to it than that. The film is actually very dialog heavy — not uncommon in his films — with scenes that are drawn out just enough to build tension, and which more often than not end with some sort of violence. Brad Pitt is hilarious. Christoph Waltz who plays the lead villain is brilliant. The entire cast does an amazing job. The film is probably one of Tarantino’s more accessible films, as the story unfolds sequentially — you don’t jump back and forth in time as with his other films. The movie was great. You should watch it.

The official Inglourious Basterds website.


X-Men Origins: Wolverine

    8 September 2009, mid-afternoon

I watched X-Men Origins: Wolverine on the plane trip to Edmonton. I had been told the film was bad. I wasn’t expecting much. Even then, I have to say the film didn’t really deliver at all. Well, I suppose the title credits were kind of cool. For the most part though, the film was incredibly cheesy. I was reminded of bad 80s action flicks. There is a shot of Wolverine walking away, lighting a cigar, while a helicopter blows up behind him. There are (multiple!) shots of him screaming, “Nooooo!” while the camera pulls away from above. This film should have been way better than it was. I mean, the source material is great, and it’s not like Hugh Jackman can’t act. What the bloodclot?

The official X-Men Origins: Wolverine website.:

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Le Samourai

   21 August 2009, early morning

I watched Le Samourai last night at Cinematheque. The film is about a perfectionist hit man, hired to kill a nightclub owner. The entire movie takes place over a weekend. It’s slow and methodical, and very light on dialogue. Each scene is very neatly paced and filmed. John Woo has said the film was an important influence for his film The Killers. I was reminded of some Johnny To films. The film features a killer score. Also, Nathalie Delon is really hot. This film is definitely worth watching.

You can by the film from Criterion.


The Time Traveller's Wife

   20 August 2009, terribly early in the morning

I watched The Time Traveller’s Wife last night. The movie, like the book, is about the relationship between a time travelling man and his wife. (The book is excellent, well worth reading.) I wasn’t expecting much. The movie definitely exceeded by meagre expectations. People complain about the casting, but I honestly didn’t have a real vision of either character in my head. (I suppose I imagined someone scrawnier playing Henry, but who doesn’t like Eric Bana?) The movie strips away much of the book, leaving the core story more or less intact. The film manages to present a coherent tragic love story, but sacrifices a lot of the nuance present in the book. The characters in the book are a lot more interesting, and a lot of the side characters are a lot more fleshed out. There is a lot of conflict removed from the movie, making it feel at times like a typical hollywood romance — except for the whole time travelling thing. The movie is shot and edited quite well. There are several sequences that quickly show the passage of time, how Henry manages to survive his time travelling escapades, etc, that are much longer narratives in the book. I think the actors did the best they could, considering the premise for the film is kind of ridiculous. (It takes real talent to say, “I’m a time traveller,” with a straight face.) Shima cried, though that’s not saying much. It’s an enjoyable enough romance film.

The official The Time Traveller’s Wife website.

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Step Brothers

   17 August 2009, terribly early in the morning

I watched Step Brothers over the weekend. It’s a Will Ferrel movie. He plays that sort of asshole dude that never grew up character he does so well. John C. Reilly plays a similar character. In the film their characters are loser 40-year olds who still live with their (single) parents. The two parents marry, and so the two men end up being step brothers. There isn’t much in the way of plot, it’s more about how their characters develop and grow as people. I’m probably reaching with this characterization of the film. It’s mostly a lot of stupidness. It was funny at times. You probably have to like Will Ferrel to enjoy the film.

The official Step Brothers website.


Dream for Kabul

   13 August 2009, terribly early in the morning

The Japan Foundation screened Dream for Kabul last night. It’s the story of a father, Haruhiro Shiratori, who loses his son during the World Trade Centre bombing. He decides to try and build a memorial to his son in Kabul. His goal is to try and promote peace. Of course, nothing is quite so simple. Shiratori is an engaging figure, and quite inspiring. Throughout the film he and the people interviewed suggest that before his sons death he was probably a very different figure. It sounds like he and his son were estranged. What he’s trying to accomplish is quite inspiring. The film is shot in three locations: Tokyo, New York, and Kabul; there is also a lot of footage of post-WWII Tokyo. The way the film is edited, you often find yourself thinking you’re watching a scene in one country when in fact you’re actually in another. It’s a smart effect. The film seems to meander a bit at times, but on the whole I think it’s interesting and well worth watching. As an aside, I love the Japan Foundation. That building is awesome, everyone there is so friendly, and their shows and exhibits are so nice.

The official Dream for Kabul website.


School's Out

   14 July 2009, terribly early in the morning

Degrassi Jr. High and Degrassi High ended on an incredibly bleak note with the School’s Out TV Movie. The film came out in 1992, when I was in grade 6. I remember watching it then. Shima and I watched it again last night. We have been watching the entire series over the last couple weeks. It’s interesting to compare the earlier episodes of the show with the later ones. When the show began, it was pretty obvious only a couple of the kids were actual actors. By the end, it seems that even those kids who couldn’t act took lessons. This is good, because some of the storylines in School’s Out would have been painful to watch with Degrassi Jr. High era wooden acting. School’s Out takes place a year after Degrassi High ends. There are lots of characters from the series notably absent, and some characters appear in the background, but don’t really have lines. (In this respect, it isn’t unlike a very long episode of the TV show.) The film’s main plot follows a love triangle between Joey, Catlin, and Tessa. A subplot involves Wheel’s fixing up a car so he can drive off to Calgary. If you haven’t seen the film, I’ll leave things at that. The movie is bleak. Some of the last scenes in the film seem particularly dark. School’s Out was a really scorched earth way to end the show, especially since the series finale for Degrassi High was fairly up beat. If you haven’t seen the original Degrassi series you’re missing out. It’s some of the best television ever made. Seriously. Well, maybe anyways.

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Tokyo Sonata

   30 June 2009, terribly early in the morning

Shima and I watched Tokyo Sonata at the Royal last night. The film is a look at the life of a typical Japanese family after the patriarch loses his salary-man office job. He hides this fact from his family, going off to “work” each day. This sounds like it could be the set up to a comedy, but it’s actually an incredibly bleak look how this family slowly falls apart. The music, dialogue, and the way it was filmed reminded me of art-house films from the 60s or 70s. I liked this film a lot. (Shima, not so much.) The cinematography is lovely. The actors are great. The films last two scenes are amazing.

The official Tokyo Sonata website.

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   17 June 2009, terribly early in the morning

I met up with some ex-Konja members to go see Departures at Cumberland Cinema. The movie won a bunch of awards in Japan, so I was looking forward to seeing it. Like many Japanese films I’ve seen, Departures is about a fellow who does something the rest of Japanese society look upon as shameful, but by the end of the film everyone realizes what he does isn’t so shameful after all. In this case, the protagonist tends to the dead. The movie is melodramatic comedy. The girls next to me were crying for good chunks of the film, and then laughing the rest of the time. The film strikes a strange balance. (The opening scene really sets the mood for the rest of the film.) The film is quite touching at times, though i’m not sure it’s a bit too melodramatic. I liked it regardless, and I think it’s definitely worth watching. There are some very sweet moments.

There was a trailer for Tokyo Sonata before the film began, which is a film I also really want to see. I love me some depressing foreign cinema.

The official Departures web site.

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    7 June 2009, evening time

Shima and I just saw Pixar’s latest film Up. A crotchety old man flies away in his house accompanied by a boy-scout of sorts; they have an adventure together. It’s a very sweet film. The opening is probably bound to make a good chunk of the audience tear up. I think it’s amazing that Pixar can make these computer animated films that are so touching. Pixar are basically in a league of their own when it comes to making animated films. They have no competition whatsoever. The only films I think match up to the quality of Up are Pixar’s previous efforts. This film is phenomenal, and you’d be stupid not to see it.

The official Up website.

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Invisible City

   27 May 2009, early morning

I completely forgot to write about Invisible City, which I was the last film I saw at Hotdocs a few weeks back. The film was phenomenal, so I don’t know why I didn’t say as much here. Invisible City is a film about two kids growing up in Regent Park. The filmmaker followed their lives for 4 years, chronicling their problems along the way. We hear from their exasperated mothers, who are raising them alone, a former teacher who is trying to mentor these fatherless children, and from the kids themselves. The film touches on all sorts of issues, though the main one seems to be the challenges involved with raising a son alone. The film had all sorts of well earned hype around it. I’m sure it will be on the Passionate Eye in no time.

A real review of Invisible City by Spacing.

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Calling Home and Cash & Marry

   13 May 2009, terribly early in the morning

Following Final Fitting and Tinar we watched Calling Home and Cash & Marry. Calling Home was a short film about the separation immigrants are often forced to deal with. Shot entirely inside the long-distance telephone booths of a London shop, the audience gets to listen in to the boring, funny and touching conversations people have with their families abroad. All the conversations are juxtaposed together, creating a mix-mash of language and emotion. It was an interesting enough short film.

Cash & Marry was a very enjoyable film about the immigration in Austria. Two men are on the hunt for a wife so they can get proper papers to live and work in Austria. The film is an examination of how countries treat their immigrants, and some of the absurdity that surrounds setting up a two-tiered society. Much of the film is this sort of comedic frantic romp, but throughout it all there is this more serious and bleak undercurrent. The film ultimately ends on a more or less low note. (Until the credits begin, anyway.) I quite liked the film. It’s a strange adventure.

Calling Home and Cash & Marry at the Hotdocs web site.

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Final Fitting and Tinar

   12 May 2009, terribly early in the morning

Shima and I watched Final Fitting and Tinar on Saturday afternoon, with her dad and Steph. Final Fitting was a short film about a tailor who makes the religious outfits for some of Iran’s most famous mullahs, including Khomeini. I suspect the goal of the film was to contrast the piety of the tailor with that of the mullahs he makes clothes for: one mullah is clearly living the good life, sporting a giant belly; another claims he’s already paid the tailor; etc. It’s a funny little film, but on the whole not that compelling.

The second film was Tinar — which as I understand things, means lonely. Tinar was amazing. The director filmed a young boy, a cowherd, living in rural Iran. The boy’s mother has passed away, and his father has remarried. The boy lives more or less by himself, the boy’s father living with his new family. The film maker did a great job of capturing the ins and outs of this boys life. The film maker said the movie was shot over 3 years, and that it took a long time for the boy to open up to him. (He was worried the film would be silent, as the first few months they were with the boy he more or less never spoke.) It is a very touching movie. The boy speaks of his love for his step-siblings, despite the fact they clearly enjoy a much better life than him. He talks about wanting to go to school, wanting to run away from his life as a cowherd. It is bleak. The film is shot beautifully. So many scenes would work as photographs. From start to finish it’s a well done film. One hopes the director can secure distribution for the movie. It’s well worth watching.

Tinar and Final Fitting on the Hotdocs website.

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