Category: film (Page 1 of 2)

Dancing Norman McLaren, One Frame At A Time

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

If you don’t know the name Norman McLaren, you will, and soon, thanks to a new production happening at the National Ballet of Canada. The UK-born, Canada-based animation innovator, who won an Oscar for his 1952 anti-war film Neighbours, was one of the most important and influential figures in the history of film. It has been rightly been noted that McLaren (who passed away in 1987) “extend(ed) the boundaries of creative animation” through his unique and highly experimental approach. His 82 works (along with 52 test films) were added to the UNESCO heritage collection in 2009, and his name is slowly coming to be recognized more widely outside of experimental cinema circles. It’s been keenly observed that “without him, (Canada) would be lighter an Academy Award or two, and likely much more.”

The title of the National Ballet of Canada’s new work, Frame By Frame, set to premiere at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre this coming Friday (June 1st), references McLaren’s painstaking method of drawing on film stock, frame by meticulous frame, and of his work with stop-motion animation sequencing. Each animated frame had a slight differentiation (being done by human hands, after all), which resulted in a charmingly wobbly end effect when viewing.

Canadians of a certain generation will remember, with glee, McLaren’s exuberant creations, having been exposed to them regularly in school and on television. They were an inescapable part of growing up in Canada, like so many animated works that came from the beloved National Film Board (NFB). I loved the wiggly lines (the so-called “boiling” effect in action) and the zealous embrace of surreal imagery that characterized so much of McLaren’s work; it forced you to think and feel at once, a new experience for small children more used to fantastical diversion and reaction-inducing entertainment. The jolly headless hen from “Hen Hop” forever makes me smile, even as it makes me think carefully about what’s on my dinner plate (to say nothing of reminders of the horror-meets-macabre-humor of my mother’s childhood farm stories, which I will leave to reader imagination). McLaren’s works were so unlike the Disney ones I’d see in cinemas as a child, more free and fun and loopy. Many also had strong social messages, like 1952’s “Neighbours“, a nine-minute film that uses pixilation to tell the story of two people who fight over a single flower; it garnered much praise and admiration, from artists like Pablo Picasso as well as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. He also worked with a host of famous music figures, including Glenn Gould, Ravi Shankar, Pete Seeger, and Oscar Peterson (the latter being featured in Frame By Frame), and his “Pas de Deux“, “Adagio“, and “Narcissus” are among the most beautiful dance films ever made. The animator met his life partner, Guy Glover, at a ballet performance in London, and his fascination with both music and art permeates his creations, whether they are music/dance specific or not. McLaren firmly believed that when it came to film, “how it moved was more important than what moved.”

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Norman McLaren working on “Hen Hop” in 1942. (Photo: BFI)

It is understandable, then, that one sees within McLaren the unmistakable qualities which are so suited to a stage transfer of his life and works. Choreographer Guillaume Côté (who is Associate Choreographer at the National Ballet of Canada and a longtime beloved artist there) and celebrated director Robert Lepage drew inspiration from McLaren’s works — their rhythms, their energies, their winking, sometimes-whimsical, sometimes-pensive spirits — in creating Frame By Frame. Along with a host of celebrated theatre productions and work for Cirque du Soleil, Lepage has also leant his talents to classical music arts; his opera productions have been staged at the Canadian Opera Company, Opéra National de Paris, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  In creating Frame By Frame, his first work with the National Ballet of Canada, Lepage recently said that “(c)lassical ballet is a wonderful craft, and I respect it a lot. It’s just that it also needs to be reinvented in a certain way if we want the craft to survive.”

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Robert Lepage and Guillaume Cote in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

The production is a collaboration between the National Ballet of Canada, the National Film Board of Canada, and Ex Machina, Lepage’s production company in Québec City. It is a project several years in the making, and will reportedly make full use of a range of multidisciplinary technologies, including live projections and camera work. The Québecois director has said he wanted to create a “digital homage” to McLaren’s analogue world, and Friday night, audiences will see for themselves the fruits of these labours, with the animator’s work being brought to life in a whole new way.

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Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

National Ballet Second Soloist Jack Bertinshaw will be performing the role of Norman McLaren in Frame By Frame. The Australian-born dancer has been in a range of works for the company since joining in 2011, including a sprightly performance as Uncle Nikolai in seasonal presentations of The Nutcracker, Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire, Benno in Swan Lake, and the title role in Pinocchio. I was curious to ask him what it was like to work around the level of technology LePage is utilizing, his experience as an Australian in discovering the works of a Canadian icon, and the various joys and challenges of capturing life, art, and animation through movement.

What’s it like to embody a real person? It seems like a rather unique opportunity within the ballet world.

I’ve done quite a bit of reading and obviously Robert and his team have done a lot of extensive research. With each scene we talk through each concept and what their aim is and what it should be acted as, and portrayed as. They wanted to make sure I had enough of myself in it too. While I’m being Norman and staying as true to that as the kind of fun-loving guy he was, he was also around this this close-knit group of friends —we touch on that. I wouldn’t say it’s difficult, but you’re right, most of time it’s a character like the Mad Hatter, you don’t get to go through a life from beginning to end very often. We do things like Nijinsky and it’s a portrayal, but it’s rare. Certainly this sort of a part is new for me.

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Artists of the Ballet in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: David Leclerc)

Have you ever worked on show with this level of technology?

Not this much. My background is in jazz and tap, I came from one of those schools who’d do their yearly shows that were as high-tech as possible, with cool lighting and such — but not anywhere near this level of high-tech projection. (In Frame by Frame) it comes from everywhere — above, front…  I’m holding a camera at one point that works. It’s really amazing.

Does the technology make it easier or harder to perform in?

It depends — if anything, it’s easier and harder. Something Guillaume and I have had to figure out, mostly, is how we can best enhance this technology; we can’t fight against it. We have to be clear on the certain themes we’re dancing as there’s a camera from above on us, and that’s being projected onto the back screen so the audience in general will be looking at the above aspect — we can’t fight against that. It’s been a learning process over three years now, and it’s been really unique. This is the first time for dancers that we’ve been in the process from the get-go, from the round-table of, ‘let’s create a ballet.’ We normally get to the process where the choreography arrives, and they’ve got things in order, with storyline and sets and costumes/designs somewhat figured out. This is the first time where we’d go to Quebec for a week or two in the summer and we would be with Ex Machina, at their building with all their equipment, and we’d workshop. We played with so many different types of technology there — what works, what doesn’t work.

And LePage was open to all of it?

It was his idea! He has the studio and the technology to do all of this on the regular, for his works with his team.

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Greta Hodgkinson and Jack Bertinshaw in rehearsal for Frame By Frame. (Photo: Elias Djemil-Matassov)

What’s this kind of collaborative creation been like?

Inspiring! Working with Robert LePage and his team has been incredible. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done. It’s going to be so different — that’s one thing we’re interested to see: how Toronto audiences perceive it, how they take these ideas. It’s a lot of fun in a lot of scenes — a lot of Norman’s works were fun and funky, with odd humor and quirkiness, so we’ve made sure that’s a good part of it while also maintaining enough of Norman’s life throughout.

There will be audiences who either know McLaren’s work very well, or don’t know his stuff at all but love the ballet. What do you think they’ll come away with?

The show is so versatile, I think audiences who don’t know anything about him will still certainly come away with quite a lot. We sometimes portray exactly the work and sometimes we recreate it, like with “A Chairy Tale” — we’ve studied that video, and we do every single chair move and have black light going. We’ve tried to do the exact replications and bring (his works) to life so people who know it will appreciate it, and people who don’t, it’ll be like the first time watching his work. 

So capturing the spirit of his work.

Yes, a lot.

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Jack Bertinshaw (Photo: Sian Richards)

Guillaume has said that “everything that’s put on stage nowadays should be multidisciplinary, in a way.” Do you think there should there be a multidisciplinary Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake? Using contemporary technology in producing traditional works is a big issue in the opera world also.

I certainly believe we should respect and honor the old original works. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake today, I believe, are the most beautiful how they were originally created, but when you’re creating something new that’s never been done before… it’s why multidisciplinary is a bigger thing. Today we’re so exposed to new technology anyway, but there’s still a crowd that loves that original stuff.

Introducing anything new means risking people getting angry…  

Nijinsky was one of the first originators of conceptual dancing and they threw tomatoes at him!

Once the shock of the new fades, it’s been suggested it then becomes the new norm. Some productions have to fight against history, but with this it seems like you’re less fighting it than celebrating it. What’s it been like to learn about these works? 

Being Australian, I’m wasn’t aware of McLaren or his movies, but my mother is, oddly enough — she’s in film and television PR, so she’s a lot more in that world. She’d heard of him, and my uncle in London, he’s a cameraman for film, he knew his work also. My mum’s company and circle of friends heard about Frame by Frame and were like, “Wow, Norman McLaren!” Meanwhile I’d never heard of him before three years ago. I’ve done a lot of research and found out a lot more. We’re not making our own version of things; we’re honoring his works as truly as we can.

Frank: Not Just A Quirky Head

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Lately I’ve been noting how people will choose certain words in order to categorize and even dismiss things they don’t like or understand. “Quirky” is, I think, one of those words. Used as an adjective to ostensibly describe something (usually a movie) that’s odd, unusual, off the beaten path, and just plain strange, it’s also frequently used dismissively — as in, “that’s so quirky, ick.” 

I began noticing this when, in preparing to interview Kiwi filmmaker Taika Waititi for a feature this past fall, I came across the word being used, over and over, with reference to his (amazing) body of work. Eagle vs Shark: quirky. Boy: quirky. What We Do In The Shadows: well… no, that’s funny, because it’s like Shaun of the Dead, but vampires! Hahaha! (The unspoken rule being, if it contains generally familiar tropes, it can’t possibly be quirky.) Like a passive-aggressive friend, use of the word “quirky” reveals more than it might initially imply.

The word came up again when I read about Frank, the Lenny Abrahamson film based on journalist Jon Ronson’s interactions with Frank Sidebottom, the onstage alter-ego of English comedian/musician Chris Sievey. A movie about an eccentric group of musicians lead by a man who constantly wears a gigantic papier-mache head is certainly a unique premise, so “quirky” might be acceptable. But Frank is so much more; the movie, which made its debut this past January at the Sundance Film Festival, is a moving examination of the nature of creativity and human relating. It’s also harrowing in its depictions of band dynamics, rising success, and mental illness. The movie isn’t just weird for the sake of it; every time you see its title character bellowing his strange, surreal poetry or interacting with confused German tourists or making out with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), there’s a small bit of truth Abrahamson is sharing with you, a tiny puzzle-piece that asks to be placed in the jigsaw of your mind. Everyone’s minds are slightly different, so everyone’s going to see this movie — and its characters — in slightly different ways. Perhaps that’s the point.

The film introduces us first to Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an English would-be musician working a dull office job. The opening scenes, of Jon looking at various passers-by and composing songs in his head based on what he sees in real time, are brilliant in their simplicity, rendering our hero’s struggle deeply familiar to anyone who works in and around the creative industry. Jon rushes home, inspired by the “boxes” of his suburban surroundings, only to get stuck in the muck of creation, whereby he shares his frustrations with his paltry Twitter following. Shortly thereafter, he’s offered a position in a band headed by the mysterious Frank (Michael Fassbender). The music the band specializes in is hardly mainstream; it’s a mix of The Birthday Party, The Civil Wars, and Einsturzende Neubaten, its leader and his booming, low voice a curious if compelling integration of Captain Beefheart, Scott Walker, and Jim Morrison. 

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At once authoritative and elusive, Frank is a fountain of inspiration for Jon. The band, called The Soronprfbs and featuring Frank, Clara (who does theremin and strange keyboard effects), French guitarist Baraque (Francois Civil) and his girlfriend, drummer Nana (Carla Azar), trek to the Irish countryside with their manager Don (Scoot McNairy) to record an album, which Jon documents in a series of blog posts, tweets, and Youtube uploads. The inclusion of social media lends Frank a timeliness as well as a sense of urgency; its use isn’t forced or tacky, but rather, a natural extension of the band’s world, and especially of Jon’s ambitions and personality, and how it comes to clash with other sensibilities, namely Clara’s. The updates (narrated blogs and tweets, including hashtags) are consistently believable, and an important part of the film’s themes of ambition and varying definitions of success. When the band gets the chance to play at SXSW, one senses the widening chasm between Jon and his bandmates; the English keyboardist and songwriter is far more devoted (and determined) than the latter to getting an audience and to being, in the film’s words, “likeable.” 
This desire to “being in a band people like,” as Frank puts it at one point, reminded me of something a well-known music figure said a while ago, that people don’t form bands so that they can play in their garage; they form them in order to play for audiences who will appreciate their work. It’s a sentiment I couldn’t help but turn over in my head as the film unfolded; Frank forced to consider the notion that perhaps there are some people who come together simply because they enjoy the energy the other brings and revel in the vitality of those joined energies, expressed through a joyous cacophony that, like a labyrinth, only they (as a combined unit) know their way in and out of; such bands play for themselves, and no one else. Is that wrong? Is it strange? Is it… quirky?
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Abrahamson doesn’t seem so concerned with quirk as he does with humanity. That focus anchors the film’s tone and deepens the relationships between its characters. Frank is a fascinating portrait of not only artists and bands but its own audience. I found myself rooting for Jon, and was charmed by his interactions with Frank; I identified with his drive to be celebrated and successful. The wisdom of the screenplay (by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan) is that it doesn’t judge Jon when he fucks up (which he does, more than once), but allows for moments of grace and quiet, which are expressed so powerfully in the scenes toward the film’s end. You won’t be in tears by the final credits (Frank doesn’t wallow in melodramatic mawkishness, preferring strong adult drama, something in woefully short supply lately) but you will be forced to contemplate the hows and whys of success, art, and the overall validity of the phrase “mad genius.”

“Genius” is nonetheless a good word to describe the performances in Frank. Gleeson is highly moving, and frequently uses his wiry frame to express Jon’s insecurities, frustrations, and fears; Gyllenhaal is compellingly icy as the highly protective Clara, while Fassbender is truly mesmerizing, conjuring an unforced poetry that modulates between manic and mysterious. The movie’s supporting cast is strong as well, with Azar vibing a young, resolute Maureen Tucker, with her big eyes and quiet confidence, and Scoot McNair as the scatty if troubled Don. The music, by Stephen Rennicks, deserves acclaim; too it’s a wonderful amalgam of influences, with playful lyrics full of surreal imagery, underscored by pulsating bass lines, shrieking guitars, and bleepy-bloop effects, reflecting the band’s personalities, their immediate environments, their relationships, and moods. I’d wager that if Ronson and Straughan’s screenplay is the bones of the work, the music is its heartbeat, with Abrahamson’s masterful direction the skin that draws everything together. 

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So call it “quirky” if you want, but don’t let that stop you from seeing it or think Frank is just a “weird” movie about a guy in a papier-mache head. The film’s elements, while unusual, combine to form a highly watchable piece of cinema. It’s beautiful, it’s moving, it’s important. The music is amazing. The performances are beautiful. Embrace your quirks, or leave them at the door, but see it.

Head & Heart & Movies & Me

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Movies were one of my first great loves. I would sit in the grand silence of many an old cinema, with scratchy red seats, the velvet sheen long since worn off, and spider webs wrapped like lace around the dusty, grey crystals of faded, wheezing-gold wall sconces, floors sticky with a thousand screaming-kiddie afternoons and breathless teenaged nights. It was magic. Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Jaws, Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon, and later, Thelma and Louise, Aliens, JFK, and Tim Burton’s Batman were a part of my culture diet, alongside nights at the opera and afternoons at the museum. Along the way, I developed a desire to direct movies, write movies, produce movies, be in movies. 

When I was old enough to attend the then-named Festival of Festivals (which later grew into the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival), I purposely sought out the strange, the unusual, the odd — stuff that I might never see again. That’s what a film festival’s really for, isn’t it? The blockbusters could wait. Along with the big, ballsy blockbuster stuff, I had developed a love of smaller fare: the intimate wordplay of Woody Allen’s work, the poetry of Federico Fellini, the deliberate thoughtfulness of Ingmar Bergman. The work of Wim Wenders, whose visual poetry and keen integration of timing, color, sound, and performance feel quietly operatic, yet grandly passionate, fired my imagination with tales that deviated from the orderly narratives I’d seen in so many Hollywood movies. The smaller works introduced me to new ways of looking at old myths, and the courage to dream up new ones. 

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Even as I wrote, I continued to watch, waiting in interminable lines (and frequently terrible weather) to be let in to the dusty, dark palace of my dreams. I clearly remember the many magical elements of De vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman, seen at the film festival): long silences punctuated only by breath and wind, brown-and-gold tinged cinematography, the mud around an actor’s face. Terence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line utterly awed, silenced, stunned, into a very intense head and heart-space. Walking home later, the rain drops that sat, jewel-like, on the grey, lined cobblestone streets of Dublin looked different, filled with a magic I knew nothing of, but could only marvel at.
This wonder extended itself to all types of movies, provoking equally powerful reactions and throwing open doors of creativity and dreaming, inspiring stories and screenplays that meshed the human, the historic, the fantastical, and the frightening. Going to the movie was a ritual, usually exercised opening night; there was something about the occasion that seemed exciting, and important to be a part of culturally. Sure, the actors were hot/interesting/cool, but what friends and I really wound up talking about over drinks in a smoky bar later was the way things were filmed, the way they sounded, the shadows, the light, the performances – the way everything came together and made us feel. And that’s ultimately what it was about: feeling. Big or small, indie or studio, if we felt something, if we were moved, if we came out of there and found everything looked different, the source hardly mattered. Being moved and being entertained were not mutually exclusive experiences. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I happily hopped between the small, medium, large, and super-gulp worlds of movies with ease, untroubled by questions around budgets, marketing, demographics, brand, or even hype. I simply went because I loved movies, and I loved the experience of going to see them.

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I don’t know when the divide came, or how. It’s strange that so many of the filmmakers I admire aren’t around anymore (“dead” doesn’t necessarily translate literally in Hollywood), that so many of the actors whose worked I followed are either now a part of blockbuster franchises or relegated into old fart-style roles, that films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Only Lovers Left Alive should be anomalies. And yet, in the landscape of contemporary movies, they are, and they’re treated more as lovable/weirdo/cool/hipster-y outsiders than full, firm, equal – and necessary – parts of the film industry. The sharp rise of delineations between blockbuster and indie rile, depress, infuriate, but hardly surprise; it feels as if hype is somehow more important than heart – real heart, not the cliched, easily-digestible kind manufactured by the bucketful and ladled out by studios keen on a quick ROI. Why should head and heart be so separate? Small sparks might provide temporary heat and light in the film world now, but nothing like the roaring fire I once felt. 

Style plays as much of a role as content here. I greatly miss the grand experience of movie-going in an old cinema. The contemporary glass-and-metal popcorn palaces just don’t cut it; movie-going is a seduction, what with the raising of a curtain, the teasing of trailers, the shared silence, the delicious anticipation, the film itself a penetrating, all-encompassing, extended main course, with little side plates of things to dip in and out of for fun or rumination (or both). Multiplexes are, to my mind, the opposite of sexy; attending one is akin to going to a peep show featuring a plastic performer. I don’t feel seduced, I don’t feel beguiled, I don’t want more. Everything’s too loud and everything’s very ugly. Watching movies on a laptop is strange and uncomfortable, ease and convenience replacing the slow brew and simmer of a movie-going experience that feels long ago and far away. 
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Getting the movies out of one’s blood completely is, however, an impossible task. Very often find myself thinking in cinematic terms, directing scenes in my head, framing visuals I see or imagine, coming across various faces and casting them in the many unpublished narratives that sit, Leviathan-like, on my hard drive. My faith is partially restored by digital culture too, and by my work as an arts journalist; interviewing various filmmakers whose work I admire, connecting with other film lovers on social media, and the ease with which digital culture now allows one to access movies new and old, has lead to a kind of cinematic renaissance of sorts. I’m looking at old works with new eyes, and new works with far more critical readings and realizations, armed as I am with a knowledge of an industry in flux and the tyranny of what is perhaps best termed “kinder-mind.” 
When I like something, it’s good to be able to proclaim that love loudly, with a modicum of possible influence (maybe?) and to find a community with which to share that love; expressing dislike (and cynicism) is a much harder task, especially when something (or someone) is extremely popular, and it’s something I grapple with. I hope I’m getting better, and I hope there are more movies on the horizon to inspire, entertain, move, and beguile – and more places to be seduced in. There’s still few things better than having your breath taken away in the darkness.

At Last

Hollywood awards season is a test of endurance for me. More of a clubby series of self-congratulatory pageants dressed in designer finery than a credible display of artistic achievement, the Oscars are perhaps the most obvious of high school popularity contests. And yet my stomach was all butterflies as I anxiously checked the list of Best Actor Oscar nominees this morning. There’s something about big-name recognition of longtime favorites that is immensely satisfying, popularity contest or not.

It was amazing – beyond amazing -to see Gary Oldman finally, at long last, get nominated for an Academy Award. Longtime friends will tell you I had a huge crush on him – or rather, on Oldman’s awesome, inspiring, occasionally terrifying talent. For all his talk of despising “the method,” he seemed to live what he acted. It was thrilling to watch him move between genres so easily, and become so unreservedly, uninhibitedly lost in a role. It still is, I’m discovering.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead cemented my love of language and literature. What impressed me in the film, along with Oldman and fellow Brit Pack-er Tim Roth’s comfort with that language, was their sparky natural chemistry. Taking cues from older traditions (Godot especially) and mixing them with the best of British vaudeville (Laurel and Hardy especially), Oldman and Roth are a tag team of interconnected excellence. I was enchanted by Oldman as the dimwit of the pair, whether he was tinkering with Foucault’s pendulum or watching sailboats in the bathtub. But it didn’t prepare me for JFK, where I was struck dumb by his performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. Far from being merely imitative, the slight, mushy-mouthed, supposed lone-gun-assassin suddenly becomes very human – a lonely, tortured figure, demonized by his own swirlingly persistent, painfully obvious need to belong. Oldman gets the “lone” part of “Lone Gunman” absolutely dead-on.
Oldman’s performance -those urgent blue eyes, the slumped shoulders, the quick temper -seared itself on my young mind. I found State Of Grace and again was astonished. The performance as the wild-card gangster Jackie – haunted, passionate, angry -is simply one of the most memorable ever committed to film. When Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in November 1992, I was well-versed in Oldman’s canon, and had no trouble picturing the guy who’d played Sid Vicious years before becoming the sexy demonic Count. He’s a great actor – and that’s what great actors do. They’re not supposed to be pretty. Right? I didn’t like Gary because he was pretty. I liked him because he was brilliant. Barely recognizable from one role to the next, Oldman has a great, unsung habit of plumbing the depths of despair, celebrating the heights of absurdity, and living the vida loca (sometimes for real) across the cinematic universe. He is every color in the artist’s paintbox, every hue and beam and shadow on the canvas.
So while some of his choices haven’t inspired – the reductive baddies in Air Force One, Lost In Space, The Fifth Element and The Book Of Eli come to mind -he’s always been eminently watchable. As Radio Times reporter Danny Leigh so eloquently put it, “A chameleon full of indelibletics who all but disappeared inside his characters, Oldman made average films good, and good ones spectacular.” Neither the Harry Potter nor Batman re-envisionings were on my cultural radar, but late one night about a year ago, I was watching TV and saw Christian Bale’s square jaw jutting out of the famous black cowl on television, and a flood of inspired memories returned, of nights spent worshipping a choir of spectacularly realized misfits I felt I knew so well. Joe, Sid, Jackie, Rosencrantz, Lee, Ludwig, Norman, Jack, Drexel. Dracula. That guy. Then George Smiley sauntered in.
Like many, I’ve questioned why the Academy Awards -or indeed its poorer Golden cousin -haven’t recognized Oldman for his work. He said on NPR Fresh Air recently that he thinks of himself as a “character actor” more than anything, which is a huge shame. Could a character actor so beautifully personify John Le Carre’s quietly complex spy? Come now. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a slow-burn sort of work. Its passion is whispered, not declaimed, in the most adult kind of way. Much has been made of how “quiet” Oldman’s performance is too. Yet don’t confuse that term with “small”; his Smiley is as grand and fiery as anything else he’s ever done over the past three decades. It’s an inner sort of flame, the sort you can see running across his probing blue eyes when Smiley carefully takes his morning swim, each stroke a calculated piece of focus and concentration. We sense the innate heartbreak Oldman’s so excelled at portraying onscreen in the past, when Smiley catches his wife being unfaithful with a co-worker: the gaping mouth, the stunted breath, the wide eyes and wild blinking. We sense that fierce passion when George takes a seat in the film’s final moments, straightening his shoulders, jutting out his chin ever so slightly, the merest hint of a smile crossing his lips. You want to shriek at the perfection of it all.
As it is, I’m left, at the end of today, wanting to shriek with joy over that nomination, and yet quietly taking a few deep breaths of joy, contemplating that genius might, just might, be recognized by the popular kids. Some of us think it’s about time.
Top illustration by Matthew Brazier.

Winning!


I didn’t know a thing about Win Win when I walked into the cinema to see it lastnight. I only knew it had award-winning actor Paul Giamatti as the lead, and it’s been popular with cinema-going New Yorkers who’s tried to get tickets, only to find screenings have sold out.

Lastnight wasn’t too crowded with people, but the film itself is chalk-full of ideas -and that corny old concept of heart. Except that in writer/director Thomas McCarthy‘s capable hands, it isn’t corny. He takes what could’ve easily been a very sentimental, schmaltzy concept and delivers with panache, subtlety, and a genuine human feeling for the characters and situations depicted.

Win Win is about a small-town lawyer who makes a morally heinous decision out of sheer financial desperation, and is forced to live with its consequences. McCarthy gently, if skillfully, weaves together twin themes of survival and family (and the connection therein) by offering an unflinchingly look at good, everyday people who say and do ugly, everyday things. The connection Giamatti’s character, Mike, shares with the young, sullen Kyle (Alex Schaffer) grows more complex, and yet clearer, with every scene. Mike doesn’t see his younger self in Kyle, so much as his current one; struggling against tough odds to find his place, he lashes out, does dumb things, and ultimately comes to understand the power of unconditional love and acceptance as a powerful agent for personal transformation.
The concept of “winning” is laced throughout the work: Kyle’s winning a wrestling match Mike and his friends are coaching, Mike winning in court, both of them winning against the odds. Mike ultimately wins in the end, and Kyle ultimately wins in the end (and Mike’s family, who play a major role throughout the film, win too) – but that win comes with huge compromises. Mike does the very thing he said he wouldn’t do for income; Kyle is estranged from his mother (even if that’s probably a plus), and Mike’s family is placed with the twin challenges of him not being there much, and taking care of both a newcomer and his relative. Winning? Hell yes. No one said life was perfect -but it is always full of possibilities for growth, even (or especially) through the lean times.
I thought about this concept of “winning” riding home on the subway, amidst squeaky breaks and the inevitable announcements from desperate people looking for spare change. Who’s really “winning” in this land of plenty? The notion is, for me (and I write this as a totally uncompetitive person), more about doing “whatever the f*ck it takes” (to quote a line from the movie) and less about demolishing your opponent; it’s about your rise, not another’s descent. It’s about understanding what losing is, too. You can’t understand the sweet taste of a win without knowing the acrid, bitter taste of loss. I had the good fortune of recently winning a few sets of tickets to various cultural happenings around New York, which has been cheering. I didn’t necessarily have to “beat” anyone to do it -it was random luck-of-the-draw -but there’s always a victor, and its opposite. One doesn’t -can’t -exist without the other.
McCarthy deftly demonstrates this in a short scene in Win Win, where he shows Mike’s friend Terry (Bobby Cannavale) sitting glumly outside what was once his house, where his ex-wife now lives with a local handyman.
“It’s MY house!” he barks at Mike over the phone, after his friend chides him for his obsession. Oh, but it’s hard to let go of the old and the comfortable, even that world has turned hideous and strange.
Living in New York is teaching me to embrace winning and losing, and to understand there’s more to both (and its respective outcomes) than meets the eye. Some days are all about one, some days, the other, and that’s probably how it should be, though it’s sometimes hard to accept. Will we play dirty? Throw our opponent against the floor with reckless fury? Allow our reactions to rule our better sense? Walking away from Win Win, it occurred to me that it’s how we wrestle with winning and losing -and our ideas around both – in our daily lives that matters. Acceptance exists, as Win Win reminded me, it’s just a question of embracing it -and understanding that living that win is probably a whole lot different than we could’ve ever imagined.

You’re Where?

I like being challenged in cinema -confused, even. Daniel Cockburn‘s You Are Here fits the bill beautifully. Part detective-story, part Borgesian puzzle, the work draws on a number of influences, from Dali to Phillip K. Dick to steampunk. Cockburn has concocted a tale that will furrow your brow even as it opens your heart.

I had the opportunity of speaking with actor-filmmaker Nadia Litz about the film -and her own work -as part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It was illuminating to glean her insights, as well as her thoughts around acting with fellow Canadian thespian Tracy Wright, whose final onscreen appearance in the movie is as much about the heart as it is the head. Wright waas beloved by many in the Canadian arts world; she tragically passed away earlier this year, leaving a gaping hole in the theatre and film worlds here. Ergo, the meeting of emotional and intellectual couldn’t be made more plain than in the many close-ups Cockburn has of her face. Litz is eloquent in speaking about not only a great actor, but a great personal friend.

Nadia Litz on You Are Here by CateKusti

Equally, the actor also witty and wise in chatting up her own short that screened at TIFF. With the intriguing title of “How To Rid Your Lover Of A Negative Emotion Caused By You”, the work is a zesty mix of macabre humor and ugly truth. Like, literally pulling-stuff-out-of-yours-and-your-loved-ones-guts truth. Ouch.

I really felt Litz really hit on a piece of honesty in this film, in a much more bold, if equally compelling way, to You Are Here. Both works are, at their essence, about the importance of connection; even fraught with peril, upheaval and discomfort, human connection is perhaps the most valuable thing we have -and the thing we most often take for granted, that passes us by, flickering, dying, and finding manifestation in something -anything -else, even its reverse. Ugly truths indeed.

I Want To See This Movie

Don’t you?

After watching the preview, I’m more eager than ever to find out what happens to these young people. From the Kickstarter page description:

For the first time a film gives a voice to Sudanese youth from different origins, Muslims and Christians. The Waiting Room is an intimate portrait of a society that remains unknown to most and misunderstood by many. It addresses contemporary issues of identity and religion which continue to shape the world we live in.

Maybe you’ve donated to causes for Darfur, but wouldn’t you like to know what it’s really like to live in Sudan? A lot of political decisions are being made by our governments about Sudan, but we still know so little about the people who live there.

In light of the United Nations summit on the Millenium Development goals starting this week, stories like the one Alexandra Sicotte-Levesque presents here are more important than ever. Amidst the heady rhetoric and plaintive calls to Do The Right Thing (which is more complicated than it should be), the human, real stories like the ones presented in Sicotte-Levesque’s film seem to get lost. And they shouldn’t. The MDGs are about people, after all -not statistics.

And statistics -of the glammy kind -are really all I’ve heard about when it comes to films lately. There’s something seriously refreshing for me to come upon a movie (make that, movie-in-the-making) like this after two solid weeks of non-stop glitzy TIFF coverage. Dear wag-tongued media, please, no more frock-and-name-dropping stories. I don’t mind the odd bit of fun, but the omnipotent wall of Glamazonian coverage lately has been like eating a steady diet of icing.

In truth, there were a whack of great, socially relevant films at the film fest this year -and hey, one of ’em won the People’s Choice Award (kudos, NFB & Mr. Suzuki!). I hope The Waiting Room will be among the lot at a future TIFF. Fingers crossed.

Amazon Rising

Long after I’d seen Amazon Falls I was thinking about it, about how we perceive celebrities, and about how far I’d go to chase my dreams. I was also thinking about how incredible it was that this movie, shown as part of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, got made in such a short space of time.

Director Katrin Bowen had originally planned on making another feature, but when that fell through, having already assembled a team, decided -bang -to make Amazon Falls, which explores the dreams and painful realities of being an aged-40 female actor in Hollywood. Partly based on her own time as a Troma performer, Bowen astutely cast former beauty queen April Telek as her leading lady, and fills the screen with all manner of creep and player, including a memorable turn from former X-Files baddie William B. Davis as a predatory producer. Also notable is the gorgeous, sparse score from Step Carruthers that nicely compliments the main character’s harrowing experiences without ever imposing saccharine emotion. Though the tale of broken Hollywood dreams is common, there’s nothing saccharine, or predictable about “Amazon Falls” or its characters.

Indeed, it isn’t incidental that the film is dedicated to Lana Clarkson, the female B-movie actor who became tragically mainstream-famous only in death; legendary music producer Phil Spector was sentenced for second-degree murder in 2009. If ever there was a perfect distillation of the Hollywood dream gone bad, that sad situation had to be it. The connection to Clarkson, and the thousands like her, is felt all through the movie, and not just via the similar names. Even days after viewing the film I was still thinking about Jana (played by April Telek), and the thousands like her who sacrifice everything -home, family, dignity, sanity -in the name of getting that one dream part that will (or, more than likely, won’t) change everything. In a broader sense, Amazon Falls poses some tough questions: how often do we tell ourselves lies -about career, relationship, strengths, weaknesses – and how damaging are they in the long run?

Katrin Bowen and I talked about this and more during our interview amidst the madness of TIFF; she’s enthusiastic, passionate, and, like the many filmmakers I interviewed this year, really articulate about not only her own work but the themes she deals with, notably the way women are treated in Hollywood. We spoke on September 13th, just days after the film’s premiere, when “Amazon Falls” was receiving a boatload of buzz:

Katrin Bowen & Amazon Falls by CateKusti

The movie screens one more time as part of TIFF, at the Yonge-Dundas AMC at 9:15pm. The fest -indeed, the entire film industry -might look a little less glam afterwards, but any dearth of faith in the power of film will be swiftly, powerfully restored. Thank you Katrin, and thank you to all the Janas out there, toiling, fierce, and ever-glamorous.

Starry Night

Considering Toronto is cold at least half the year (if not more), anytime there’s an opportunity to get outside, in the nice weather, to … do stuff (read: anything!)… us locals take it. We’ll even sit on a beach that isn’t a real beach.

One of these carpe-diem-esque activities in watching movies out of doors. True, other locations around the city have had this very-same activity -including screenings at the loud and cruelly bright (and equally chaotic and utterly manky) Yonge-Dundas Square. I love Y-D Square for live music shows and some other live events (World Cup time is always interesting… if a bit dangerous if you’re a small woman) but for movies? Hmm. Would it be silly of me to want something intimate in an outdoor arena? Or is that being a bit… outre?

Enter Open Roof Films. Started by a group of art-minded Torontonians (including Michael MacMillan, former Executive Chairman and CEO of Alliance Atlantis), the series has a special focus on showcasing Canadian talent, as well as building community among the vast network of Toronto’s numerous cultural and economic pseudo-villages. I interviewed one of the founders of this newly-minted series a couple weeks back on the radio, and during that interview I was told the series is based on a similar idea out of New York City, and arose from that, as well as casual conversations between people who just… love movies (a lot), and, like me, were seeking a way of bringing people with similar passions together. Seated in a group, illuminated by a screen’s glow and a canopy of stars, one becomes enraptured with the night, the sound, the music, and the crowd. Really, you can’t much more intimate.

Part of what gives the Open Roof Film series this special brand of intimacy is its location; situated in the parking lot of a local brewery, the space is nestled between a raised highway (and Lake Ontario) to the south (and yes, you can actually see the lake), the thick-set brick building of the Amsterdam Brewery to the West, and a massive screen and sound system to the north . The East opens to the spectacular light show of the CN Tower and the cluster of skyscraper in the financial district. You’re close enough to the lake that you can actually see stars when the sky darkens. A gaggle of portable chairs is set up where the seriously filmy-minded can situate themselves, while a wide bar runs the length of space at the back, for the more social among us. It’s a nice set-up that encourages interaction and conversation, while providing a respectful option for those who want to sit and concentrate.

Not that there was a whole lot of that happening the night I attended. This Movie Is Broken, the film featuring band Broken Social Scene, was being screened, and the evening had the distinct feel of a gigantic party, much like the band’s own concerts. Observing the crowd swaying and smiling (some even danced), I couldn’t help but wonder how many had (or hadn’t) gone to see Bruce MacDonald’s movie when it was shown in a cinema proper. How much did being outside on a beautiful summer night influence their decision to see it? To go to a place where they could drink beer, smoke, dance with their girl/boyfriends, and laugh and chat with their friends? Probably a whole lot.

This Movie Is Broken is just the sort of film that was perfect for an outdoor film series; with a romantic storyline interspersed with some genuinely excellent concert footage (taken from a Toronto show last year), MacDonald’s dreamy, gorgeous homage to love and music was a genius choice to play at Open Roof Films, and a great example of the power of outdoor event to draw disparate group of people together. While the age of attendees ranged from anywhere between 25 and 40, there was no “average” anything (other than the challenging parking, which is de rigeur in Toronto, alas). There was a nice casual vibe to the entire evening, even though the audience maintained a respectful (ahem, Canadian) silence through much of the movie’s running time.

It was interesting when, peeking through the brewery windows (that lead to the loos) at one point, seeing the tiny dots of enraptured faces sitting mute and staring at a screen as the CN Tower flashed sades of blue and red past them. It says something about the power of cinema, music, and togetherness that simply can’t be replicated in a multiplex. Combined with the gorgeous after-film visuals of artist Brian T. Moore and the shining skyline, one couldn’t help but be intoxicated. Noise, motion, light, stillness, silence -and lots of gravel: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful romance… or maybe a re-introduction to an old lover -movie-going -I thought I’d forgotten the smell and taste and touch of. What bliss.

Making Docs Hot


I have a little movie confession to make: Hot Docs is my favourite film festival. Sorry, Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), don’t get jealous. The problem with TIFF is, despite its marquee appeal and oodles of excellent, beautiful content, it still feels chalk-full of sparkly, starry hype; it’s like putting ten cans of frosting on one cake. I kind of like cakes on their own, actually, with a nice cup of tea. And Hot Docs (running April 29th to May 9th) is just that.

There’s also a certain timeliness to the Hot Docs works that come to Toronto every spring. For instance, the documentary coming to Hot Docs about assassinated Pakistani PM Benazir Bhutto, has a true resonance, especially as the country is rapidly becoming a fixture on the nightly news, and there is more coverage than ever -even give years ago -with a diverse array of topics on Pakistan, including (incredibly) fashion. The film, Bhutto, by filmmakers Duane Baughman and Johnny O’Hara, had its world premiere in the U.S. Documentary Feature competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, and is making it Canadian Premiere at Hot Docs May 1st.

On to another kind of powerful woman: the one who serves you food. Dish: Women, Waitressing, and the Art Of Service, by Maya Gallus, explores the world of the female-dominated service industry. The full spectrum of the waitressing experience is documented, with the film moving from gritty truck stops to “sexy restos” and even Tokyo maid cafes. Gallus recently won a Gemini Award for Best Direction In A Documentary for her feature-length film, Girl Inside, which premiered at Hot Docs and launched the 2007 season of The View From Here on TVO. Her film Erotica: A Journey Into Female Sexuality premiered at TIFF in 1997 and was nominated for a Genie Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. This interest in female stories makes me think Dish is going to be less dishy and more dramatic, in that good, involving, I-want-another-plate way.

Now, having served, and danced, and even done some mad combinations of the two (oh, those wild Dublin pub nights), the screening of A Drummer’s Dream intrigues, for its dance-y possibilities. The beat of not food but skins sits at the heart of this NFB work, written, produced, and directed by Canadian John Walker. Drummers who’ve kept the beat for Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Carlos Santana share their knowledge with forty students during a week-long retreat in the Canadian wilderness The film features the talents of celebrated drummers Nasyr Abdul Al-Khabyyr, Dennis Chambers, Kenwood Dennard, Horacio “El-Negro” Hernadez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Mike Mangini and Raul Rekow, and looks like big ole’ noisy celebration. I would imagine this is one of those inspiring stories that makes one want to shimmy up the aisle exiting the theatre. Or start banging on pint glasses with a spoon.

Lots more Hot Docs coverage in the weeks leading up to the fest’s kick off on April 29th. Stay tuned. And TIFF? Stop pouting. You have plenty of time to make it up to me before September rolls around. Get busy on that cake.

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