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I Will Be Murdered (2013)
I Will Be Murdered proves the truth is often stranger than fiction. Like really, really stranger.
In 2009 Guatemalan lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg was shot to death with out for a Sunday morning bike ride. Rosenberg may have been chalked up as yet another victim of Guatemalan violence and extraordinary murder rates – until his friend stood up at his funeral and announced that anyone who wanted to know what really happened to Rosenberg should watch a DVD being proferred. In his video testimonial, Rosenberg utters the chillingly phrase, "If you are watching this, sadly I have been murdered." Then he goes a step further and names his killer – Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom.
The truth is sometimes really stranger than fiction and director Justin Webster's I Will Be Murdered bears this out. Through a combination of interviews with friends, family, and investigators and closed circuit surveillance footage, Webster manages to tease out the true story of Rosenberg's death. It's a tale with many twists and turns, that manages to be both confusing and illuminating. It's hard to imagine proving that the president of any country, even one so violent and corrupt as Guatemala is guilty of hiring hit men to kill trouble makers, but – without giving to much away – I promise you it's harder still to imagine the truth behind the murder of Rodrigo Rosenberg and his beyond-the- grave testimony.
Again, I've no desire to spoil. I Will Be Murdered is a Hot Docs must see. Period.
Northern Light (2013)
Northern Light is a cinema verite documentary set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
Northern Light is a cinema verite documentary set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It's a slow paced, but powerful look into the lives of three snowmobile racers and their families. Snowmobile racing is the glue holding this loose narrative together, with everyone and everything revolving around the next big race: the Annual I-500 in Sault Ste. Marie.
The three racing junkies lead very different lives off the snow, but bring real passion to their sport. Walt is one of the primary racers, who loves the sport to a fault, and has difficulties making ends meet as a result. While one of his opponents, Isaac is a perfectionist type, with a strong religious background. At many points in the film the racers' stories branch out, and the camera follows their family members whose daily lives have little or nothing to do with racing. At certain points these narrative diversions get a little confusing, but the supporting characters help broaden the film, giving it more depth and humanity.
Northern Light feels slow, with long shots of snow covered highways, trees and starry night skies, but this works well in contrast with the action of the final race. These shots are gorgeous, and paint a beautiful, but also bitter portrait of life 'up north'. I would recommend this film for doc buffs interested in a real slice of life (on ice).
Menstrual Man (2013)
One man's quest to provide more sanitary conditions for Indian women.
Amit Virmani's Menstrual Man is an exemplary documentary that explores the hard work and extraordinary vision of A. Muruganantham. A business man and inventor, Muruganantham's story is as empowering as it is unique. He is responsible for creating what he calls a "low cost sanitary pads movement" all over India. Initially shocked that his wife wasn't using sanitary pads during menstruation, Muruganantham soon discovered that in rural areas all over India women were risking severe infections due to social taboos and conservations about wearing pads. Menstrual Man reveals a shocking fact that that 70% of all reproductive diseases in India is caused by poor menstrual hygiene. This lack of knowledge in rural areas is simply because most women are too embarrassed to discuss proper ways of keeping sanitary during their cycles.
Muruganantham decided to test and produce effective sanitary napkins for women unable to receive them from stores. Once his product was created, he took his inventiveness a step further by creating simple machines to manufacture the product. Muruganantham also made the business decision to ship his products to rural areas all over the country and also strictly employ women to handle the creation, distribute, and advertising by raising awareness for the pads in their designated areas. Muruganantham's story is simply riveting. With a docile personality and natural humor, Muruganantham explains how he, an uneducated man who dropped out of school in the 9th grade, went on to become an effective businessman whose dreams of empowering his country through knowledge is becoming a reality.
Virmani captures Muruganantham's story with magnificent dexterity. Complete with stock footage, moving graphs, sweeping facts, and an ever changing aesthetic, Menstrual Man is one of the most compelling documentaries I've ever had the pleasure to watch. Virmani not only focuses on Muruganantham and his humane work ethic, but also how Muruganantham's business has empowered the women who work for him. Menstrual Man's narrative and Virmani's impressive way of telling its story makes for a documentary that's both highly entertaining and extremely enlightening on the cultural issues of rural villages. Muruganantham is a truly inspiring person, and Virmani's film is an exemplary must see Hot Doc.
Alaska Highway (2013)
Alcan Highway is the tale of a one charming wanderer's Quixotic mission.
Hese is a man with a mission and Alcan Highway is a document of that mission. After purchasing an antique rusty bucket truck in Alasks, he leaves his home in Finland, recruits some buds, and intends to make this contraption into a rolling mobile home. He also aims to park in Vancouver Island, a mere 4000 kilometers from where it sits, and by sit I mean it hasn't been started in 40 years. Not surprising, our charming wandering hero encounters some failures along the way, the personal ones perhaps outweighing the mechanical ones.
Of all the flavors of documentary filmmaking, the human on a totally Quixotic mission is my personal favorite. Director Aleksi Salmenperä handles this tale beautifully, never once trying to explain why Hese is doing this – because really, could there be an adequate answer? Hese is one charming Finn, even when he's being obstinate and willful. The singled minded focus with which he persons his very odd vision draws the viewer in and the stunning natural beauty of the North American west coast provides some great scenery along the way. Alcan Highway is definitely a Hot Docs must see.
I Am Breathing (2013)
I AM BREATHING is the end tale of Neil Platt, a totally ordinary man who inherits his father's terminal illness 20 years before its due date.
I AM BREATHING is the end tale of Neil Platt, a totally ordinary man who inherits his father's terminal illness 20 years before its due date, mere months after the birth of his own son Oscar. Neil tells it himself, literally and as screenwriter, because he resolved to document his journey by means of a blog from the first day of diagnosis to the end; the goal – 100 entries before the main event rendered him mute and completely incommunicado.
The filmmakers were present with Neil for a period of time after the disease paralyzed him from the neck down (he had Motor Neurone Disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease) to the day after he leaves for hospice. Between Neil's confessionals, we hear excerpts from Neil's blog narrated by an actor, receive tiny interview snippets from mom and wife Louise. Their contributions are moving of course, but the content thereof is about what one would expect. The filmmakers choose a more subtle manner to convey the complexities of their role, show rather than tell. Oscar's toddler antics provide the foil for normalcy against the adult reality playing out.
The pacing is contemplative, as one would expect. But it's not "that" kind of "contemplative," the kind where nothing happens, the kind where the filmmakers are in love with a shot that does nothing for the story. No, the filmmakers unobtrusively underscore Neil's ordinariness-made- extraordinary-by-means-of-circumstance-and-our-witness-to-it, by interspersing his testimonials with clips of Neil in younger days, with artful shots of everyday beautiful things that Neil is seeing with new eyes, with scenes of the child's view of the world, with scenes of friends and family doing not much more than being with him in a loving or companionable way, which speaks volumes (ever avoided a sick or dying friend just because you didn't know what to say?). Their treatment allows the viewer to alternate between asking themselves the rather daunting question "what would I do if I had only months to live" and watching this one man's inspiring answer.
It's hard, very hard, to make a film about an individual and find the universal in it. It's very hard to capture the uber-message in a particular circumstance that raises it to a level where people's empathy and minds are engaged in the bigger question and at the same time honouring the subject of the film. McKinnon and Davie's ability to find this balance has got to be part of the reason it has garnered the documentary accolades from audiences and raves from reviewers. My jaded self says it would be easy to dismiss the raves as simply knee jerk reactions to a film that deals with a guy dying – how does someone trash an effort like that? But in this case, having been in a remarkably parallel universe, I agree with the accolades. The filmmakers have achieved the universal in the personal, a state of documentary film grace to which we as artists aspire, and audiences would do well to witness.
Good Ol' Freda (2013)
Good Ol' Freda is a the story of one woman's fierce loyalty the four most famous men in the world.
The moment that I saw Good Ol' Freda listed in the Hot Docs program, without reading the description, I knew exactly who this doc was about. That's good ol' Freda Kelly, once called the luckiest girl in the world by newspapers and teen rags, because she was the secretary to a little band called The Beatles. The title comes from the 1963 Christmas message recorded by the Fab Four for their fan club, which Kelly also ran, in which they specifically mention "good ol' Freda." Early in the film, Kelly looks at the camera and says, "Who wants to hear the secretary's story?"
The answer of course is – We do, we do! All these years later, the world is still hungry for any piece of the story of The Beatles that has been left untold. And Freda Kelly is our last best hope. She has remained mum for years – she's never sold her story; rarely gives interviews; didn't cash in the treasure trove of Beatles memorabilia in her attic, instead passing it directly to fans or donating to charity. Good Ol' Freda is less a tale of The Beatles and more a tale of one woman's – a girl's actually, being only 17 when she was hired – fierce loyalty and protector of a trust given her by the four most famous men in the world.
Freda Kelly was a nice Liverpudlian girl who found herself in extraordinary circumstances. She coped with those circumstances with more grace than one can imagine and has continued to do so for years. Kelly took her job very seriously, but she was a fan first and foremost, and she still counts herself as one today. Turns out, that "luckiest girl in the world" appellation was exactly how she felt – and still does. Kelly notes that she agreed to do this doc, with some reservation, because she wants her grandson to know that she did some fun and cool stuff in the '60s. Good Ol' Freda will definitely make that possible.
After the Sunday afternoon screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox, director Ryan White and producer Kathy McCabe came out on stage. The crowd applauded. The Freda Kelly came up. The audience – a packed house – leapt to its feet for a lusty round of ovation. That's the kind of affection Freda Kelly inspires and her story as told in Good Ol' Freda inspires. This doc is a must see, now at Hot Docs or anywhere else you can catch it.
Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (2013)
Get all the details of the Pussy Riot controversy
It's challenging for North Americans to grasp that there's still danger in speaking your mind in many places in the world. So while we all knew of Russian punk collective Pussy Riot and we all heard about the arrest and prosecution of three of its members after an impromptu performance of "Punk Prayer – Mother of God, Chase Putin Away!" on the soleas of Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, we might have been left a little befuddled about the exact magnitude of the uproar. The documentary Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, from directors Mike Lerner and Maksim Pozdorovkin, goes a very long way in casting light on the situation.
The power of "punk" is hackneyed in the West by now, but Pussy Riot and members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich prove that in the more repressive areas of the world it still has the power to provoke. And while the women of Pussy Riot became a cause célèbre in the West, with such supporters as Madonna, Yoko Ono, and Amnesty International, we learn from Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer that the opinion of the Russian public was far more complicated and divided. While there's no doubt where the bias of this doc lies, the directors do an admirable job of documenting the turmoil surrounding three young women who stand on the courage of their convictions.
Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer is one to see. If you're not lucky enough to be in Toronto during HotDocs 13 or you can't score a ticket to any of the 3 screenings, HBO has bought the film and announced plans to air it June 2013.
Muscle Shoals (2013)
The only puzzling thing about Muscle Shoals is how this story went so long without being told.
Have you ever heard of Muscle Shoals, Alabama? Let me rephrase the question – have you heard an Aretha Franklin song? Have you ever grooved to Wicked Wilson Pickett's Land of 1000 Dances? Have you ever thought "Yes Percy Sledge, that is EXACTLY what happens when a man loves a woman!" Have you ever driven way to fast while the Rolling Stones' Brown Sugar blasted through your speakers? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you have heard of Muscle Shoals, Alabama or at least you're heard the Muscle Shoals sound, the subject of the documentary Muscle Shoals from director Greg 'Freddy' Camalier.
In the interest of full disclosure, these are my people ya'll! I grew up just east of Muscle Shoals, also on the banks of the Tennessee River – "The Singing River" to the Native Americans who made their home there for millenia before Rick Hall founded FAME studios. Driven by a need to escape the crushing poverty and overwhelming tragedy that befalls him, Hall is the central figure in the story of the famed "Muscle Shoals sound" – well him and a group of homegrown, white as cotton studio musicians known as the "Swampers". These men shaped what ultimately proved to be some of the finest rock, soul, and R&B America would ever produce.
Music docs can really go either way, depending on such bureaucratic mundanities as rights and clearances. Muscle Shoals is a triumph, though. All personal bias aside, present day interviews with music luminaries, expertly deployed found footage and stills, and the greatest soundtrack a movie could hope for, all make Muscle Shoals one of the finest music documentaries you'll ever see. Let the participation of such bright lights as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bono, Jerry Wexler, Percy Sledge, Alicia Keys, Gregg Allman, Clarence Carter, and Etta James serve as a testament to the enduring magic that is Muscle Shoals, FAME studios, and that greasy, soulful sound. The only puzzling thing about Muscle Shoals is how this story went so long without being told.
A Fool There Was (1915)
The Vamp makes her first appearance in A Fool There Was (1915)
A Fool There Was (1915) wasn't Theda Bara's first film (The Stain (1914) holds that special honor), but it was her first lead role. It also, I think, sets the template for every other role she played and her entire persona. I say that I think, because while I am familiar with Theda Bara the legend, A Fool There Was is the first and only Theda Bara movie I've watched. Will it be my last? A Fool There Was, directed by Frank Powell and produced by William Fox, centers around The Vampire (Theda Bara) and wealthy lawyer John Schuyler (Edward José) who falls under her seductive spell. In pursuit of this (apparently) irresistible piece of tail, he leaves his loving wife and cherubic child, ruins his successful career, and destroys his health. I believe there's a moral in this story, but it's hard to sympathize with any of these characters. As the wronged wife, Mrs. Schuyler (Mabel Frenyer) just comes off as a self-righteous, judgmental martyr and Schuyler seems too easily swayed by another woman to be as devoted to his wife as the title cards might lead us to believe.
Of course, none of that matters. The real attraction in A Fool There Was is Theda Bara herself. I was prepared to be disappointed by her, mostly because of the disappointment of others. Despite being the designated first sex symbol of the silver screen, the original Vamp as it were, and one of the highest paid actresses of her day, very few of Theda Bara's films exist. Out of more than 40 films, complete prints of only six of her movies remain. While silent film fans will wring hands over the lost Cleopatra, based almost solely on the astounding still photos of Bara in character, the quality of her surviving works suggests it may be no tragic loss.
In A Fool There Was, Theda Bara is confusing to me. She is certainly magnetic, much more so than any of her screen mates. But is she the soul stealing Vampire that the script calls for? I don't think so. Theda Bara was no beauty. She is sensual, with the soulful eyes, fleshy physique, and full lips of a sex pot, but there's a certain vulnerability about her that makes the role an ill fit. In one scene, The Vampire dances about the deck of a steam ship after having driven one man to suicide and just before seducing her next chosen victim. As she swans about, Theda Bara actually makes eye contact with the camera once or twice, and generally looks uncomfortable with all the shimmying. As any good Vamp can tell you, you got to own that stuff and Theda Bara looks like she left the tags on so she could return it if it didn't work out.
Of course, Theda the Vamp is a construct, perhaps one of the earliest examples of a complete movie marketing package. Born Theodosia Burr Goodman, she was really just a good girl from Cincinnati, Ohio. Producer William Fox saw something there, however, and set about constructing an exotic, mysterious persona. She was rechristened Theda Bara, she grew up in the shadows of the Great Pyramid, and came to Hollywood via the French stage, and she was encouraged to discuss the occult and mysticism. Flip through a few publicity shots of her and you'll find snakes, skulls, skeletons, and all manner of occult paraphernalia. She was also costumed in very revealing – keep in mind this is the silent era – get ups. It all added up to sensation.
To see more pictures of Theda Bara, visit my Facebook Photo Album.
For me, in looking at publicity photos of Theda Bara, I still see someone who isn't quite sure about what she's doing there in a snake bra, holding a skull. Theda Bara has large, lovely eyes that even an excess of kohl can hide, and more often than not she's confronting the camera head on. But it's not the mystery of the seductress I see there, but rather a certain confused innocence. There's something tragic in those eyes, and that tragedy is born out by the typecasting that began with A Fool There Was. The Vampire became the Vamp, synonymous with Theda Bara herself.
She did try to branch out of that mold and work on more serious roles. But Theda Bara was worth too much as a wanton woman, and she never really launched that dramatic version of herself. After marrying film director Charles Brabin in 1921, Theda Bara retreated from the spotlight. Hers was a popularity that probably wouldn't not have survived the harsh trials of the late 20′s and early 30′s, but she got out while the getting was good. What we're left with is A Fool There Was and a handful of other vamp roles to judge her by. This movie is worth checking out to see the wicked woman in action. Then you can tease the hype from the reality for yourself.
The Cameraman (1928)
The Cameraman is Buster Keaton's last great film.
I'll get to The Cameraman in a sec, just bear with me. Did you watch Lost? I hope, for your sake, that the answer is no. I mean, c'mon – J.J. Abrams, I'm going to kick your ass in a dark alley if I ever get the chance, just for wasting my time. But I digress. I merely mention this to point out the character of Desmond Hume, who wags around the one Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, that he's saving. 'Cause see, I do that too. As a matter of fact, I'm sitting on Martin Chuzzlewit by Dickens, Pic by Jack Kerouac, and one lone piece from Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel. Please don't tell me how tragic and regrettable this will be if I get hit by a bus
I know, I know.
All of this is to say that recently, I went to a screening of The Cameraman (1928) starring the one and only Buster Keaton. And this was the one and only Buster Keaton film I've never seen. So before you gasp and clutch your chest and say, "But Pretty Clever Film Gal, how could you neglect to see a Buster Keaton movie!?!" I refer you to my opening salvo above. Buster Keaton movies are rare and precious commodities. It's not like we're getting any new ones, unless somebody decides to use his powers for good not evil (I'm looking at you, James Cameron.) However, when you have the opportunity to see a Buster Keaton movie in a theater with music accompaniment from William O'Meara, well preciousness has to be put aside.
The Cameraman-poster-Buster KeatonEric Veillette, impresario of Silent Sundays at the Revue Cinema and Silent Toronto perpetrator, introduced The Cameraman as Keaton's last great film, which is a fair assessment. Careful readers may have noticed that I did not refer to the movie as "Buster Keaton's The Cameraman," but merely stated that it starred Keaton. Though Keaton was an auteur before there was such a thing, writing, directing, editing, I suspect even catering all of his features up 'til this point, The Cameraman was directed by Edward Sedgwick. Notably, this movie was Keaton's first under his brand spankin' new contract with MGM. Things would go from bad to worse for Keaton and MGM, and in a little less than a year, creative control of his films would be wrested out of his hands. Keaton later called the move to MGM "The worst mistake of my career." Considering what followed, he's exactly right.
But that's later. In 1928, The Cameraman has Keaton's fingerprints all over it. Sedgwick may have held the title of director, but no body puts Buster in the corner apparently, or at least not yet. As a filmmaker, Keaton is all about control – having it, losing it, regaining it. His films are precise, always demonstrating that's there's nothing coincidental about a good gag. Comedy is a presentation, dependent on timing and control and Keaton's work reflects this, always. So despite being stripped of the titular role of director, it's impossible to assert with a straight face that The Cameraman, perhaps one of his most self-reflexive works, was not firmly in Keaton's control.
The Cameraman-Buster KeatonThe movie abounds with gags the define Keaton's preoccupation with control, or lack thereof. When he pawns his tintype machine to buy an outdated, hand cranked movie camera, all in the service of getting closer to Sally, the newsreel production office receptionist, things spin out of Buster's control pretty damn fast. His initial salvo in newsreel shooting results in a tragic mess of double exposed images – a battleship sailing down a Manhattan street, most notably. Forget the mechanics even – Buster struggles with the physicality of the machine itself, breaking the glass in the office door multiple times. In the end, the star cameraman of The Cameraman is a monkey, for pete's sake. Which might be a metaphor for Keaton's entire career: an aimless amateurism produces iffy experimental results, and an unrestrained primitivism produces a heroic quality results (not to mention funny results). Take that, MGM studio stooges! I think there's another point worth making about Buster Keaton and The Cameraman. Turns out, Buster is a fine actor. His previous, auteur-like body of work demonstrates beyond a doubt that Buster is fantastic performer, honed from basically being born on a vaudeville stage. He always had the timing, the exploitation and confounding of expectation to provoke a reaction, but did Buster ever act, did he build a character and flesh out a role? Perhaps freed from the rigors of being the writer-director-caterer, Buster is free to be our hapless little cameraman, so complete that when Sally rejects him, it will bring a tear to your eye. That's not the typical response to your typical slapstick and reflects the elevation of Buster's small-man-in-a-big-world character beyond mere comedy prop.
With hindsight being 20/20, it's difficult to not find a tinge of the bittersweet in The Cameraman, solely because it is Buster Keaton's last great film. It is, sadly, mostly downhill for Buster from there. But, for all that, The Cameraman is not to be missed.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Our Dancing Daughters is jazz fueled ode to the roaring 20s
For me, there are two alternating pleasures in watching silent movies. The first is the opportunity to watch a fledgling medium, one that is still so much with us today, being born. Silent movies showcase the intuitive genius of a lot of early filmmakers who seemed to just know what to do with these moving images. This is the pleasure of watching Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau, Griffith. But even when a silent movie is not so innovative or culturally fresh or technically groundbreaking, it can still offer up a window into a moment in time. Movies are, after all, a reflection of both what we actually are (sometimes, unintentionally so) and a projection of what we wish to be. Our Dancing Daughters (1928) falls firmly within the second category. Simply put, Our Dancing Daughters is a visual ode to The Jazz Age. Full of flappers, flasks, and slangy intertitles, the interiors are gorgeous art deco museum pieces and all the gals have adorable bobs and fringed dresses. They are young, wealthy, beautiful, and navigating a tangled web of evolving sexual politics. Our Dancing Daughters was pretty risqué for 1928. It had the censors fuming, and kudos to director Harry Beaumont and writer Josephine Lovett for even trying to tackle that rat's nest. Or at least kudos to them for trying to exploit the public hysteria that simmered around the loose morals of 1920′s youth in America. But does the movie hold up to scrutiny when viewed through the old sexual politics lens? Not really.
In her first true star turn, a lovely and young Joan Crawford is "Dangerous" Diana Medford, a wealthy socialite who runs with a jazzy crowd. She's vivacious, flirty, full of a lust for life, and not at all opposed to doing the Charleston on a table top. Anita Page plays Diana's friend Ann, a venal little gold digger backed my a money grubbing mom. Diana falls hard for Ben Blaine (Johnny Mack Brown), a super wealthy playboy who's just looking for a nice gal to settle down with. Ann falls hard for Ben's cash and we have a good old-fashioned cat fight on our hands. There's a nifty little side plot concerning Diana's gal pal Bea (Dorothy Sebastian), who will be eternally tormented for her bad girl indiscretions prior to marrying Norman (Nils Ashter).
So here's what happens Ben is drawn to Diana but mistakes her vivacity and verve as loose morals. Diana is not the kind of girl you marry. Ann offers him an alternative, with a phony little-miss-innocent act, and the damn fool falls for it. Diana is heart broken and Ann goes about her boozing and catting ways, rewarding herself with diamonds for serving out the sentence of her marriage. Ben is unhappy, realizes he's made a HUGE mistake, but *spoiler alert* Ann gets her Karmic comeuppance when she falls down the stairs and breaks her pretty little neck, leaving Ben and Diana to be happy together forever. The moral of the story: hussies always lose and good girls always win, even in these crazy modern times when it's at first hard to tell which girl is the tart and which one is virtuous. As progressive and daring as Our Dancing Daughters pretended to be, it ultimately reinforced traditional sexual mores without really celebrating the liberation of women. Even while pulses raced at the saucy script and semi-shocking visuals, the movie also puts a reassuring hand on the viewer's shoulder and says, "See, they only seem wild, but they're still nice girls. And if they aren't, they'll eventually get theirs." It's not at all unlike Sex and the City, where even after 6 seasons of free-wheeling sexual independence, the only satisfying conclusion could be Carrie Bradshaw's marriage to Mr. Big. Some things never change, I suppose.
With all that said, if you watch movies made in 1928 to explore sexual politics, you're most likely a fool. It's a testament to the complexity of Our Dancing Daughters that it provokes the same kind of head-scratching discussion of where women really fit into society that we still engage in today. But that's not the reason to watch this movie. Watch it because it is a sheer delight to watch. It's fast, fun, and Joan Crawford is a revelation. I personally love the crazy eyebrows, line-backer shoulder pads version of Joan, but to see her young, fresh, and really shaking a tail feather is a pure joy. And despite the confused social messaging of the movie, Our Dancing Daughters is a pretty little time capsule of 1928. The clothes are perfect and the art deco sets are stunning – the sort of thing that might make girls from small Southern towns move to New York City (you know, I have a friend of a friend, or something). The slangy title cards ("Mother – how vicious!") are pure fun.
With the benefit of hindsight, Our Dancing Daughters also has a little taste of the bittersweet. The theatrical release date of September 1, 1928 puts this little gem almost exactly one year after the release of The Jazz Singer and almost exactly one year prior to the Wall Street Crash of 1929- two events that will be cataclysmic to the industry and the world that made Our Dancing Daughters possible. That makes the movie feel like a fragile thing – like a butterfly wing or a fire-fly in a jar – beautiful, but doomed. As ever, I remain grateful that the camera were rolling.
Douglas Fairbanks is Coke Enyday, a drug fueled scientific detective
Thanks to the generosity and hospitality of an awesome Toronto film fan, I had the opportunity to see The Mystery of the Leaping Fish last weekend. I've seen this silent short before, but it's been awhile and I had forgotten how truly weird and oddball it is. I think a lot of silent film fans probably skipped this one, or never quite caught it. I also think a lot of viewers, even seasoned silent film viewers, will be surprised at how very subversive this little gem is.
The Mystery of the Leaping Fish stars Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday, the "scientific detective." Old Coke divides his time between, as the movie so delightfully informs us, "Sleeps" "Eats," "Dope," and "Drink." Despite the fact that he's coked out his gourd, he stumbles across an opium smuggling ring. The Chinese or Japanese or some kind of hybrid Chapanese are smuggling opium via "Leaping Fishes" amusements, i.e. inflatable fish rafts for rent by the seashore. For some inexplicable reason, a Gent Rolling in Wealth (A. D. Sears) is blackmailing the Gang Leader (William Lowery) to force the Little Fish Blower (Bessie Love) – yeah, you read that right – to marry him. Zaniness ensures, Coke Ennyday helps the Police Chief I.M. Keene (Tom Wilson) bust the smugglers, the Little Fish Blower doesn't have to blow any more fish, do any more blow, or marry anybody, and all is right with the world.
The plot isn't the wildest part. Aside from starring silent powerhouse Fairbanks, the scenario was written by Tod Browning. And an uncredited D.W. Griffith. And intertitled by Anita Loos. Basically, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is the Traveling Wilburys of movies, with about the same results. Much like that pop super-group, the final product doesn't measure up to the collected talent pool. In fact, the whole thing is just very odd. Dare I say it seems like the product of some coke fueled lost weekend? The sort of thing that seemed like a good idea at the time? None of which is to say you should not watch The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. You should watch it. One, Fairbanks, though he doesn't look quite himself in this flick, is always Fairbanks. To see him do "coked up" is to see some of his patented amazing physicality. But mostly you should watch it to be boggled by the daringness of the subject matter and boldness of the satire. I mean, The Little Fish Blower? How very outre. Most viewers who sit down to watch a silent film made in 1916 probably aren't quite prepared to see a lead actor wearing a bandolier of hypos and taking handfuls of white powder from a bucket labeled "cocaine" and rubbing it all over his face. It takes a lot to shock a modern cinema goer, but there are some, if not shocking, at lease very surprising things here.
Often, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is described as a pro-drug farce. I wouldn't say that, but mostly because the narrative is too muddled to be pro or con anything. Coke Ennyday and the police seem to be a-OK with Coke's coke use, but they take a less approving approach to the opium smugglers. Yet Coke dips into the opium as well. While the filmmakers have a firm grasp on the effects of cocaine, opium doesn't typically get ya all jazzed up. Or, um, so I've been told. If there was some point being made here, I'm not at all sure what it was.
All in all, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is deeply weird. See it for the sight gags (check out Coke's checkered car!) and Fairbanks at his absolute nuttiest. Also see it for strangely discombobulating experience of seeing it and puzzling over it.
The Temptress (1926)
The Temptress is a standard silent drama with a riveting lead actress
he Temptress (1926) is a standard little romantic melodrama, the kind of silent film that you find on any silver screen in any town in 1926. It's packed with super stars – directed by Fred Niblo, co-starring Antonio Moreno, Lionel Barrymore, Roy D'Arcy – and it possesses one thing that your standard romantic melodrama of 1926 did not – Greta Garbo. To say that The Temptress, only her second American film outing, stars Greta Garbo is an understatement. This movie exists solely for Garbo, to give us all the opportunity to indiscriminately stare at her for 106 minutes.
The plot of The Temptress is a bit convoluted. Manuel Robeldo (Antonio Moreno) spies Elena (Garbo) at a Parisian masquerade ball and the two pass an idyllic night in a garden where they fall madly in love, Hollywood style. So you can imagine Robeldo's surprise when he drops by the house of his pal Marques De Torre Bianca (Armand Kaliz) and meet's Bianca's wife – Elena! Next, a seriously ticked off Robeldo attends a dinner party thrown by Parisian banker Fontenoy (Marc MacDermott). It's a delightful affair until Fontenoy proclaims that he has been bankrupted and ruined by his terrible she-vixen of a mistress – Elena!
Now a super seriously ticked off Robeldo, disgusted by Elena (yet still secretly lustful) blows town and returns to the Argentine where he works as a brilliant engineer on a mega-dam building project. But wouldn't ya know it – Elena trails him to the Argentine and sets about destroying every man in sight. Canterac (Lionel Barrymore) & Pirovani (Robert Anderson) bicker over her, leading to a tragic shooting. Badman bandito Manos Duras wants her too, and Robeldo has to beat him in a whip fight. When Manos returns to shoot Robeldo he shoots Bianca instead. Then Manos assuages his seriously damaged ego by blowing up the dam and flooding the village. So that's one suicide, one whip fight, two murders, and a catastrophic dam failure laid at the feet of one temptress. Which brings me full circle to the point that Greta Garbo is The Temptress. You can drive a truck through the holes in this most unlikely plot, but because the temptress in question is the ethereal and beautiful Greta Garbo, it's still believable. As I was watching this story unfold I was running every actress of the day through my head, trying to think who else could have pulled off this role, and I came up empty. Cause the thing is, and this is important, Elena is pretty much a cipher in this movie. She doesn't really do anything. She just is. And no other actress I can think could be remotely plausible in provoking suicides, murders, and village floods just by showing up
As a title card in The Temptress informs us, "God makes men and women make fools." Being of the gender in question, I happen to think men do a fine job of making fools of themselves – but I digress. Simply put, Elena is beautiful and elegant and tragic. She's not a Theda Bara kind of vamp, nor a Mary Pickford kind of innocent, but rather some weird blend of the two. Her eyes may be mysterious pools in which men drown, but as Ringo Starr said, "It's just me face." In the ultimate showdown between Elena and Robeldo, she tells him that men desire her "Not for my happiness, but for theirs." Yes, Elena is painfully aware of the destructive effect she has, and so, after Robeldo finally submits to his love for her, she steals away in the night. Get it – she sacrifices her happiness for his. Elena and Robeldo do meet again, many years later in the streets of Paris. Elena is broken, shabby and homeless. She pretends to not know him and sacrifices yet again. In 1926, this ending was way too harsh for MGM studio execs. An alternate happier ending was supplied and theater owners were offered the choice of ending to screen, depending on audience tastes. Turns out American cinemas mostly went for the upbeat end to the tale, while European audiences were just fine with doom and gloom. Which pretty much confirms everything we know about the divergent developments of US and European cinema.
In short, The Temptress is a pretty okay movie, but starring an amazing icon of silent (and beyond) cinema. Greta Garbo alone is worth the price of admission, though Fred Niblo brings solid direction to the table too. There's little that's innovative in the presentation, but the Fontenoy suicide party does feature a remarkable shot of the overlong party table that elegant demonstrates the excess and debauchery that broke the man. It's followed up by an equally remarkable examination of the seedy sexual underbelly of the party, demonstrated by multiple examples of under-table footsy. As a matter of fact, the Parisian scenes – the masquerade, the dinner party – are far more visually arresting, but far briefer as well, than the Argentine sequences.
The Last Dogs of Winter (2011)
A engaging if unfocused doc about a dying breed of dog
The Last Dogs of Winter explores Brian Ladoon's struggle to preserve the Canadian Eskimo dog, or Qimmiq, the rarest registered breed of dog in the world, from extinction. Assisted by an adventurous New Zealander, Caleb Ross, Ladoon breeds Eskimo dogs against the harsh backdrop of Churchill, Manitoba and fights off polar bears to do it. As a documentary, The Last Dogs of Winter is bit uneven in focus, but the subject matter is engaging, and Ladoon is, shall we say, a character.
I suppose there is a lot to be said about the Inuit and the relationship they had with their dogs. This documentary does touch the topic, and presumes that this is a given. Not being Canadian, but having seen Nanook of the North, I get it. To lose these dogs would be a tragedy and they exist today only through the efforts of Ladoon and organizations like the Eskimo Dog Research Foundation. I would have liked for The Last Dogs of Winter to explore the topic a bit more, but it wasn't the ultimate focus of the doc.
Brian Ladoon - The Last Dogs of Winter - Costa BotesWhat I would like to have know more about is the relationship between Brian Ladoon and his Churchill neighbors. Mention is made that he's a divisive figure in the community and that many people do not agree with him, but it's all expository and never really depicted. There is also mention made that people feel Ladoon is cruel to the dogs because he keeps the outdoors, at the mercy of the elements and the polar bears. Ladoon offers cogent explanations for both complaints. First, the dogs are made to withstand the harsh Canadian winter. Second, the dogs aren't afraid of the bears. In fact, we are treated to much footage of dogs frolicking with bears. It's riveting.
The Last Dogs of Winter also never addresses the question of why or for what the dogs are worth saving. It takes as a fact in evidence that they are worth saving and never addresses the issue of work. Brian Ladoon works very hard to maintain the integrity of the gene pool of Canadian Eskimo dogs, but they remain purposeless in the contemporary society. One suspects that Ladoon had something bigger and better in mind for his dogs (mention is made of running teams of dogs) but got bogged down along the way in the persnickety details of finances and resources.
The Last Dogs of Winter It's no surprise that a fiercely independent, abrasive, and obstinate character like Brian Ladoon would have both the gall and perseverance to save an entire breed of dogs. In the end, he strikes me as the human equivalent of his Eskimo dogs - beautiful example of a breed teetering on the brink of extinction and already tumbling in the abyss of purposelessness. If The Last Dogs of Winter winds its way to your area, be sure to see it. Just expect to feel a little sad afterward.
The Incident (2011)
Creepy Psychological Thriller Turns Torture Flick
At the first TIFF screening of Alexandre Courtes' The Incident two young ladies fainted and had to be carted away by ambulance. I wasn't at that screening, but I bet I can guess when they passed out. The Incident starts out as a promising creepy but psychological thriller, and then
takes a sharp right into a straight-up torture flick. I didn't faint, but I did gag a few times. I left the theater shaky and disoriented, kind of like when you narrowly miss being in a terrible accident, but I was left ultimately disappointed in the uncapitalized promise of the movie.
So what if the inmates really did run the asylum? This question is the foundation of The Incident. We follow aspiring rock star George (Rupert Evans) and his garage band mates. Like most aspiring rock stars, George and his friends have day jobs, in this case they cook and serve to inmates at the Sans Asylum for the criminally insane. We spend a lot of time getting to know George and his band and become familiar with the interpersonal tensions (creative differences?) in the band. And then a terrible storm knocks out the power at Sans, effectively locking the staff inside while the loonies run rampant through the halls. Thank goodness Courtes tells us very specifically that we're in 1989, since cell phone service would severely handicap this plot.
The basic setup for The Incident is the perfect foundation for a creepy shriek fest. There are some deliciously tense minutes when our intrepid heroes roam through the hallways trying to locate a phone (rotary, no doubt). Each dimly lit corridor has twenty slightly ajar cell doors shooting of it. There is no doubt that an insane inmate lurks behind each one, and the only question is will he be a sadistic killer or a benign nut job? Leaving aside the jump in your seat frights, just seeing a shuffling figure crossing the hall in the distance sends a little chill down the spine.
The Incident - Alexandre Courtes And then, for some reason, Courtes takes all of this dramatic tension, all of the psychological fright, and flushes it down the toilet. Or rather, boils in a pot of inmate urine along with a sundry of human body parts. Guards are decapitated, noses are ripped from faces, George gets a light flaying you get the picture. I'm not a big fan of slash and gore in the first place. After I've been elevated to a state of high tension, all this gore and sadism culminates in some pronounced nausea. Worst of all, it feels cheap, as if Courtes (famous for directing music videos – this is his first feature) had no idea what to do with all of the narrative capital he had accumulated.
The wrap up of The Incident is what you will expect. I think I can tell you, with out spoiling because you'll see it a mile away, George ends up quite mad. But Courtes does not provide a clear narrative path to get us there. There are some seriously unresolved narrative issues which are ultimately just ignored. The Incident does not conclude so much as it just stops. In fairness, after all the sadism you've watched, the stopping is a relief, but still not a conclusion.
Completely visual, gorgeous short film
What to say about Trotteur? My notes say this: Jesus, this is gorgeous. If SSC 6 was screening again, I would shell out full fare just to relive this eight minutes and change. Trotteur does not shy away from narrative in the way that The Red Virgin does. Rather, it pares a narrative down to its bare elements – this is the conflict, this is the resolution. We have a young man, abused and ostracized by vicious children, who believes he can outrun a train. The village looks on, perhaps mockingly, and they all know, as do we, he can't possibly win. The bitter irony is of course that all of these people will lose this race and that belching, snorting, fire breathing mechanical beast will beat everyone in the end.
Trotteur is a visual feast. The cinematography, in glorious black and white, simultaneously demonstrates the barrenness and the beauty of the winter landscape. There is no dialog. There is no exposition. There is a boy and a machine and sheer will, both mechanical and human. In his review of this year's silent film novelty The Artist, Chris Edwards at Silent Volume wishes for a "a silent feature that isn't about its own silence, or the Silent Era, but simply about something else." I wish for the same thing, and I nominate Trotteur's director Arnaud Brisebois for the job.