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The Oxbow Cure (2013)
Remarkable minimalist film
What's most remarkable about this film is that it was made at all, let alone in Canada at the current time, when the available sources of funding are both risk- and art-averse, and tend to ruin potentially good concepts with their forced 'creative' input (too many cooks, etc. - especially when those 'cooks' are businesspeople with no real understanding of film). If only more young people, upon graduating from film school, would do what the production team behind this did: collaborate to make something without having to rely on the 'official' sources of funding, and without worrying about whether it would be 'commercial', etc.
As for the film itself: it's far from perfect, but overall it's quite good at what it's trying to do - while not quite there, it's at least trying to do something more along the lines of Tarr, Kiarostami, Akerman and the like rather than taking its cues from American films (whether Hollywood or the 'mumblecore' indies). The acting (by a non-professional, who does a far better job than most 'professional' Canadian actors these days would!) is very good and nicely demonstrates the point about film acting being mostly a matter of re-acting. The use of the camera is probably the film's strongest point - while there are some conventionally 'pretty' shots, there are also quite a few images that are formally striking and effective without being 'beautiful'. The editing is minimal and non-intrusive, and always seems to suit what's being shown; the sound editing, while excellent in some scenes, goes over-the-top or becomes on-the-nose in others - especially in regards to a couple of musical choices that break the otherwise strong mood created by image, editing and non-musical sounds and which just plain don't fit. Furthermore, the plot, which could so easily have fallen into cliché 'Can-lit' territory (and surely would have under the influence of the aforementioned funding agencies!) manages not to, and so becomes a solid addition to the 'canon' of works featuring this Canadian literary trope (isolation in the snowy wilderness) rather than a rip-off or unintentional parody of them.
Given the dire state of Canadian distribution for Canadian-made films, who knows if this will still be playing at the TIFF Lightbox by the time anyone reads this, or whether it will become available on DVD or some format after its theatrical run.
The Adventures of Dollie (1908)
Griffith's first film works despite its relative simplicity.
It's fairly remarkable that Griffith went from this film to ones like "Corner in Wheat" in only a year's time. Considering it was his first film, and that the medium itself was only twelve years old at this point, it's clear that he had the potential to come to know what he was doing with the medium; I would even say that he already knows what he's doing here, to a certain extent - at least a greater extent than Porter's "The Great Train Robbery".
Two things in particular that struck me in this film...
I don't think Griffith held the openings of the shots of (a) the caravan crossing the river and (b) the barrel going over the falls simply because he hadn't figured out editing rhythms, as I can imagine some imagining. I think he probably did this intentionally, since it allows for some suspense/anticipation to build in the audience that would be completely lost if the action happened at a faster pace, with the shots cutting in on the caravan entering the frame, or the barrel on the edge of the falls. The audience needs a moment to register the location itself, and to mentally connect it to the preceding events, in order to (i) get an idea of what is likely to happen, and (ii) fear it happening. Compared to this kind of suspense (admittedly a fairly basic/simple kind), the more straightforward presentation of the action in "The Great Train Robbery" lacks a sense of audience engagement/involvement/'active viewing', as we're basically just watching as things happen, not being made to anticipate them as part of the experience the film is giving us. Of course, I have no idea if Griffith was the first filmmaker to do it like this, but it still shows a fairly good understanding of the medium. (How many Hollywood directors today would understand to hold such shots and not just cut right to the 'action'?)
Also, the ending, while contrived (of course the barrel just happened to get pulled out of the river outside of her house!), somehow works. I think this is because it both comes as a surprise (I'd guess the audience is more likely to think the river is carrying her *away from* the locations that have been established, rather than the other way around) and also seems to fit with what we've already seen. There's a sense of familiarity when we return to the shot of the bank and the boy fishing, and since we can relate this moment to something we've seen at the beginning of the film, it has a certain kind of internal consistency that would be unrealistic in life, but which works to give the film itself a feeling of unity as a fictional text (the trouble ends where it began!). While it might simply be a case of both limited production resources (in this case, time to find, set up and film at a new location, when Griffith was averaging two of these films a week) and the limited running time of a one-reeler itself, and the needing to arrive at an ending literally sooner than later, there could have been many different ways of ending this story that wouldn't have worked as well, even if they had been more realistic/plausible.
Score: A Hockey Musical (2010)
More like crashing the net...
Telefilm's most recent Great White (Northern) Hype is another "Men With Brooms" (didn't they learn the first time?!). Ultra-contrived to match its funders' ideas of 'quirky', it manages to be a comedy almost entirely lacking any actual humour, with just about the shallowest, one- dimensional characters I've seen outside of third-rate TV shows.
As a Canadian, I would very much like for the films made in our country to be of high quality and worthy of taking pride in. Think of the output in the late 80's through the 90's, when we still funded auteur directors and invested in their development, regardless of how much 'commercial' potential their films had - this is how actual cinematic talents like Guy Maddin, Atom Egoyan, Deepa Mehta, Patricia Rozema, Don McKellar and Bruce MacDonald were able to get their start. Now, we're at a point where people in the industry think they've matured/progressed while they're making and promoting films like this one, which turns out, almost unbelievably, to be just as terrible a film as "The Love Guru". Seriously.
What is it going to take for those who are in a position to make decisions as to funding, etc. to realise that trying to pander to domestic audiences through forced, patronising, on-the- nose attempts at 'Canadian content' is never going to result in a film that is as commercially successful as they hope (not to mention that it's never going to result in anything of any actual cinematic or aesthetic quality)? And anyway, if they're really trying to appeal to some genuine, albeit misguided and juvenile, sense of Canadian patriotism, why make one of the main selling points of your film the casting of Olivia Newton-John?
The Far Shore (1976)
Paul Gross, Robert Redford and Dan Aykroyd fight to win the love of Alanis Morissette ... or something.
Seriously though, this has to be one of the best(?) "so-bad-it's-funny" films I've seen, which is unfortunate considering how seriously it seems to have been intended, and how seriously it was presented at the screening I attended, with the head of Canadian programming for TIFF, a curator from the Art Gallery of Ontario and an art historian from Concordia University all heaping praise and declarations of importance on it in between attempts to apply discourses of feminism and national identity to what plays out like an SCTV parody of a 'too-Canadian' film.
It's also unfortunate because the director's background as a painter and experimental filmmaker shows through in the visuals and compositions, which are admittedly quite good, as is the use of the landscape in the second half (though this does veer into the realm of kitsch a couple of times, especially when a loon chimes in just in time to complete the image of a silhouetted man in a toque and plaid shirt kneeling by northern lake surrounded by pine trees at sunset - seriously).
Everything apart from the visuals, such as the script, the acting, the staging of scenes and the general understanding of life and human behaviour/interaction that's on display here is so dreadful and amateurish that it's unbelievable no one involved in the production realised that what they were doing wouldn't be dramatically or cinematically credible.
Zooey & Adam (2009)
Far better than most 'bigger' Canadian films of the past few years
I just saw this at its Toronto premiere (as far as I know ... outside of festivals, at least). This film succeeds in focusing on honest human emotions and realistic reactions to events and experiences by stripping away all of the non-essential elements of film (the things that are often referred to as 'production values' - as if the 'value' of a production has anything to do with technical 'smoothness' and adherence to formula!) While not as insightful or impactful as similar work like that of the Dardenne Brothers, Lance Hammer's "Ballast", David Ball's "Honey" and others, it still manages to capture the complexities, ambiguities and messiness of hard-to-deal-with emotions, relationship problems, new parenthood, etc.
(Minor Spoiler...) One one hand, the choice by Garrity not to end the film in the sensationalistic way in which it makes us afraid it's heading deserves praise. However, the choice to focus exclusively on Adam's feelings after witnessing the rape, and to portray him almost as more of a victim than Zooey, who was actually raped, seems questionable. Not to seem overly 'politically correct', but shouldn't an ethical film that portrays rape deal with the effects on the actual victim of the rape, rather than being an exoneration of the male's bad feelings at not being able to stop it?
Aside from this one criticism, this film should be seen as a wake-up call to the Canadian film industry - both the people who control the funding for fictional projects and younger filmmakers who are out of school but wanting to avoid the trap of working for 'the industry' (i.e. having a menial technical job on a mediocre American-wannabe t.v. show). It proves that films can be made, almost single-handedly, with only the most basic of tools and little budget (except for completion), as long as one understands how film makes meaning through structure, pacing, acting, etc, and how editing and camera movement, rather than trying to emulate the classical 'continuity' style, can be used expressively to mirror the story and acting beats. The improvisational approach yields genuine performances, letting the viewer observe the actors working through the emotional messiness and interpersonal conflicts, in the moment, as their characters are doing so, rather than seeing someone simply 'deliver' the lines and emotions their characters are supposed to have in a scene.
Will the young filmmakers who are ignored by government funding agencies like Telefilm and the arts councils (while non-filmmakers like Paul Gross continue to get handed millions for their failing vanity projects) take inspiration from this film and just go out and simply make their own, ignoring the workings of 'the system'? Ideally, and if this were a discussion on the probable effects of an American independent film on U.S. film grads, the answer would surely be 'yes'. However, due to the general unavailability of Canadian films for Canadian audiences (i.e. playing at a couple of festivals and theatrically for a weekend in Toronto), the people who stand to be inspired by this will, sadly, likely have no idea of its existence.
The Seeds of War
While this isn't Haneke's best film (his 'glaciation trilogy' and "Code Unknown" are better cinematically, and are better examples of his personal directorial style), it is perhaps his most mature/restrained, since he doesn't resort to what, in his other work, may be seen by some as 'shock tactics' to get his point across. The use of a mystery plot as a way of exploring the characters' psyches and capacities for wrong-doing and self-denial is similar to what he did in "Cache", though the cinematography (which is outstanding in its starkness and formal composition), pacing and acting are more reminiscent of Bergman than any previous Haneke effort.
Egoyan's Best Film
Not Atom Egoyan's most 'story-driven' film, but his best from a purely aesthetic/cinematic perspective. His use of non-linear chronology, repeated scenes that slowly give way to understanding, and long drawn out takes that let you really start to feel the moment (how many viewers start to notice the slight differences in the various sheep, or look for their birthdays on the pages of the wall-calendar?) puts this film close to the level of Tarkovsky, Angelopolous, Bresson, etc.
While "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter" are, understandably, his better known films (and good ones at that), "Calendar" works even better as the full realisation of theme and emotion using all the elements of cinema working in conjunction.
Taking the Mickey...
Viewers of the film who think it and/or Cage's acting are simply 'bad' or 'cheesy' are missing the point of what Herzog is doing. Then again, viewers who think it's a wild and crazy artistic take on the crime/noir genre (i.e. the 'it's different/wacky/quirky, therefore it's good' crowd) are also probably missing the point - especially if they think the lizards and dancing soul are 'symbolic' or 'represent' things.
(Warning - spoilers ahead...) What Herzog seems to be doing is serving up a parody of mainstream cinematic conventions, especially those which verge towards melodrama in their earnest attempts to be 'meaningful', 'emotional', etc. From the opening scene establishing the character as a 'wounded hero' and giving a motivation for his drug addiction with which we can sympathize (Keitel's character in the original had none, as far as I can remember), to the ending where his problems all get resolved in a single scene (!), followed by a flash forward to when his girlfriend is pregnant and his family is back on track, the film serves up one melodramatic movie cliché after another (and skewers them, not through the familiar Mel Brooks/'Scary Movie'-style of parody-through-references, but purely through the ridiculousness of it all and the over-the-top performance from Cage).
The scenes that aren't clichés (i.e. the soul dancing, the alligator/iguanas, the last shot of the fish tank) work as disruptions from the plot which highlight how ridiculous it is, like the way Bunuel would use a narrative digression to 'take the mickey' out of a melodramatic plot. Nonsensical lines like "Do fish have dreams?" or "I'll kill the three of you (dramatic pause) till the break of dawn", delivered by Cage as if they were poetic, clever or menacing, make fun of both the typical cool 'one-liners' found in action and crime movies and the pseudo-poetic, supposedly 'deep and meaningful' lines found in many 'indie' movies.
Perhaps the most convincing signs that the film isn't meant to be serious, but is ridiculous on purpose, are the over-the-top acting of the abusive john that Cage kicks out of his girlfriend's hotel room (repeating 'whoa' and pausing to say something like 'oh yeah' to the kid waiting in the hall outside!), which proves it's not just Cage who was told to overact, and the last shot - held for quite a long time on two characters sitting under a fish tank (coming after the aforementioned "Do fish have dreams?" line which makes it seem like it has some sort of 'deep' or symbolic meaning), with Cage cracking up just when we're growing impatient for something to happen, followed by a sudden cut to black. Even the casting of Val Kilmer in the role of an unimportant character who had next to nothing to do and could have been played by anyone seems to have parodic intentions (what has Kilmer done recently?).
As some reviewers have pointed out, the actual plot, once you remove the stylized direction and acting, is the sort of thing you'd expect to find in a low quality, straight-to-DVD mystery/thriller. Especially when you consider that many of Herzog's earlier films, while definitely being bizarre or 'quirky', weren't cheesy or campy but had definite depth of humanity to them, it really seems like here he's making fun of the generic, conventional material he was given, rather than taking it seriously.
In a way, it reminded me of "The Room", but done deliberately with a larger budget, more technical polish and with an established star and director who have proved their abilities in the past - all of which make it more likely for viewers to take what they're seeing seriously, instead of seeing through the absurdity of it all. Or perhaps a better comparison would be "Adaptation" (also starring Cage!) which parodies mainstream film-making conventions in a similar way in its final half hour (and there's even an alligator!)
Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)
One of the Heights of Cinematic Achievement!
In this film, Terence Davies has managed to give the viewer a complex understanding of not only the lives (both external/social and internal/emotional) of a group of characters, but also of the experience of life in a particular time, place and social class that achieves incredible universality in its adherence to the specific details of the setting. The kinds, and levels, of understanding we come away from the film with rivals the kind we get from reading great literature, something which the medium of film has rarely achieved.
As an example of the profound effect this film can have, when I saw this recently at Cinematheque Ontario's Davies retrospective (and what a difference seeing this on actual film makes when compared to the image and sound quality of the VHS tape available in North America!) the audience sat motionless and in silence during the entire end credits, and for a few moments after the lights came up (whereas at a typical Cinematheque screening, most of the audience begins filing out while the credits roll...) This film is one of the best examples I've seen of what can be achieved through the combination of images and sounds unfolding in time; through characters that can't be defined by 'objectives' and personality 'quirks' but demand to be seen as full human beings; and through a non-linear narrative structure which asks us to draw parallels between and find meaning in the relation of moments separated by time and not linked through typical cause-and-effect plotting.
The kinds of stories being told by adherents of the Syd Field/Robert McKee brand of screen writing, with sympathetic protagonists, clear-cut conflicts, objectives and obstacles, resolutions, etc., etc., pale in comparison to this -- in short, none of those conventions of traditional cinematic storytelling (or 'rules of the formula') have anything to do with life as it is lived, whereas this film does.
As some other commenters have already mentioned, the fact that this film (and his earlier Trilogy) haven't had a proper North American DVD release yet (why not Criterion???) is a real shame.
The Unloved (2009)
Excellent first feature from Samantha Morton
With this film, Samantha Morton has done better than most actors-turned-directors, as she displays an understanding not just of the ways in which films make meaning and are experienced by their audience, but also of human behaviour and the way life itself unfolds. While similar subject matter has certainly been covered before in British films, from Ken Loach to Lynne Ramsay (from whom Morton seems to have learned cinematic pacing and how to "show and not tell"), this film is still able to give a fresh experience, just like how many people share very similar lives on the surface, yet each one is unique.
Without giving anything away plot-wise, the scenes which stand out for excellent direction, acting and pacing are the opening one between the main character and her father, another later on between these same characters in a pub, an outdoor rave, and a fight that breaks out between a group of adults who are supposed to be the responsible ones (though the beauty of the way this scene is handled lies in the fact that we can't be sure some of them *aren't* being responsible by doing what they're doing!).
The last shot could have been one of the stronger endings I've seen in recent cinema, but the music that plays over it detracts from the power it could have had - instead of allowing viewers to have their own individual reactions to this image (and there's enough power and emotion inherent in the situation that it would be nearly impossible not to experience something during this shot), the music tells us what the emotions are, through both instrumentation and lyrics. This serves to detach the audience somewhat from what we're seeing, instead of sucking us in like most of the film has already succeeded so well in doing.
I can only hope Morton directs another film in the (near) future.