Tag Archives: SIFF Reviews

SIFF 2010: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

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“Do you want to know what ‘fear’ looks like?” exclaims Joan Rivers, motioning for a close-up of her fingers, as they tamp impatiently on a blank page of a weekly planner, “That is what ‘fear’ looks like.” Later on in the film, she laments “This (show) business is all about rejection.” Any aspiring stand-ups out there need to heed those words of wisdom (and I will back her up on this). Fear and rejection-that’s the reality of stand-up comedy. That being said, one could also take away much inspiration from Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work– Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s engaging “year in the life” portrait of the plucky, riotously profane 75 year-old, as she rushes from nightclub and casino gigs to TV tapings, taking meetings and sweating over the writing and production of her one-woman stage play.

The film also reviews her ever-vacillating career, from Borscht Belt beginnings to anointment (and eventual blackballing) by Johnny Carson, then slowly back up to middling. What emerges is a woman who is still working her ass off, putting people half her age to shame with a fierce drive to succeed. There’s something to be said for perseverance. As Kathy Griffin notes, Rivers was instrumental in breaking down barriers for women in standup. Joan, on the other hand, is not so sure. “I swear-if one more female comic comes up and thanks me for kicking the doors open, I’m gonna say: Fuck you! I’m still kicking them open.” Hey…at least she’s still kicking.

SIFF 2010: Visionaries ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

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An old pal of mine dismissed “experimental” films as “movies that hurt your eyes”. As I was watching this documentary about avant-garde movie critic, filmmaker and curator Jonas Mekas, directed by legendary editing whiz Chuck Workman, I began to chuckle to myself. Viewing the parade of clips from the likes of movement pioneers like Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Luis Bunuel and Kenneth Anger, I began to see what my old pal was driving at. Because, when viewed strictly as non-contextualized clip montage, it does strike one as a jumbled confusion of nonsensical jump cutting, herky-jerky camera movements, images that are under-exposed, over-exposed, fluctuating wildly in and out of focus…in short, a headache-inducing experience that kind of hurts your eyes.

But it was precisely this kind of “visionary” and free-form style of filmmaking that informed and inspired the work of more familiar contemporary directors like David Lynch (who appears in the film) and Guy Maddin (who, rather puzzlingly, does not). Now, just because a film might be labeled as “visionary”, does not necessarily equate that it is, in fact, “watchable”. Consider Andy Warhol’s infamous stationary camera epics, Sleep (5 hours, 20 minutes of real-time footage depicting a man catching his Zs) and Empire (8 hours observing the ever-static Empire State Building). Do you know anyone who has actually sat through them (while remaining completely awake and alert)?

I stayed awake and alert through Workman’s film; it’s certainly a startling assemblage of images (if anything). But it neglects to address the most important question (which was the impetus behind the excellent documentary My Kid Could Paint That)-Is it truly Art?

SIFF 2010: Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

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Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling is about “that” Candy Darling, famously name-dropped in Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”. Who was “she”, exactly? Should we care? I went into James Rasin’s documentary with a little consternation. Yet another film about Andy Warhol’s Factory, and his orbiting freak show of sycophants, wannabes and “superstars” who were (mostly) famous just for being famous? As it turns out, Rasin’s film is not so much about the Factory, or really ultimately “about” Darling, who fascinated Warhol for the requisite “15 minutes”, before getting kicked to the curb. It’s a study in sadness.

It’s the sadness of a lonely childhood; of a boy growing up on Long Island (as Jimmy Slattery) who yearned to be a famous female movie star; no more, no less. She was featured in a few Warhol films and had the lead in a play tailored for her by Tennessee Williams-only to die of lymphoma in 1974, at age 29, virtually penniless. It’s the eternal sadness of her friend, Jeremiah Newton, still carrying a torch for a long-gone (platonic) relationship, as he dutifully arranges a belated burial for her ashes, 35 years on. It’s the sad, sad mood of Rasin’s film-as wistful and ephemeral as the androgynous and translucent Darling’s moment in the sun.

SIFF 2010: Bran Nue Dae **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

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I know what you’re thinking- “Enough, already with the Aboriginal musical-comedies!” I’m being facetious, of course; to the best of my knowledge, the Spell-check-challenged Australian import Bran Nue Dae is the first (and don’t go making up titles like Jimmy B: Bring on da Chant, Bring on da Axe in the comments section to try and fool me, either). So how does it fare? Well, it has all the sizzle of a potential audience-pleaser (especially when you consider the sizable number of sunny-side-up romps that have come out of Australia over the last decade or two), but unfortunately, the steak is a bit under-cooked.

Set in the late 1960s, the wafer-thin narrative offers up a sort of Aboriginal variation on Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. In the sleepy little port town of Broome, a young Aboriginal named Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is conflicted between pleasing his religiously zealous mother (Ningali Lawford), who is pushing him toward the priesthood, and his raging teenage hormones, who are urging him that he needs to start investigating if his longtime friendship with the lovely Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) comes with a benefit package. Just when things start to get interesting between them, mom packs Willie off for another year at his Catholic school in distant Perth.

It’s not long, however, before Willie’s yearnings for Rosie, combined with the tyrannical rule of mean old Father Benedictus (an ultra-hammy Geoffrey Rush) overwhelm him, and he runs away. As Willie makes his way back to Broome, he has encounters with the requisite Whitman’s Road Movie Assortment of colorful goofballs, eventually hooking up with a young hippie couple (driving a VW bus, of course) and a hobo with a heart of gold (Ernie Dingo, stealing all of his scenes). Hilarity (and exuberant singing and dancing) ensues.

I really wanted to like this film (especially since I’ve always had a soft spot for stories centered on Aboriginal culture) but I’m not sure I can give it a hearty endorsement. There was a lot to like about it; particularly the easygoing charm of the young leads and Dingo’s engaging performance. I think the filmmaker’s hearts were in the right place…but…I was distracted by the sloppy editing (which tends to work against the choreography) and almost unforgivably bad lip-syncing for some of the numbers. While some of the songs were catchy, others were cringe-worthy. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of musicals; if you are a diehard, you might be more forgiving.

SIFF 2010: Perrier’s Bounty ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

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Despite an acute case of Pulp Fiction envy and Guy Ritchie déjà vu, the quirky Irish gangster flick, Perrier’s Bounty (directed by Ian Fitzgibbon) sucked me in with its outstanding cast, saucy dialog (written by Mark O’Rowe) and dark humor (reminiscent of In Bruges). Cillian Murphy stars as a ne’er do well who owes money to a brutal mobster (Brendan Gleeson). After Murphy’s downstairs neighbor (Jodie Whittaker) accidentally kills one of the mob’s bill collectors, the two are forced to go on the run. Along the way, the fugitives are joined by Murphy’s father (Jim Broadbent), who demonstrates that the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. It’s a hoot to watch two brilliant character actors like Gleeson and Broadbent going head-to-head, and I found myself laughing out loud, despite the predictability of the narrative.

SIFF 2010: The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

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Sometimes, it’s kind of fun to just throw a dart at the SIFF schedule and see where it lands. I had no clue as to what to expect when the lights went down for the screening of Leanne Pooley’s documentary The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. All I knew was that it was a film about yodeling lesbian twins.  I didn’t even know if it was for real; it sounded like a mockumentary, to be honest. To my surprise, by the time the lights came up, my faith in humanity had almost returned.

Because you see, it’s hard to be depressed after spending 90 minutes with the film’s subjects. Jools and Linda Topp have to be two of the most charming, down-to-earth, warm-hearted and preternaturally gifted entertainers you’d ever want to meet in a screen profile. Hugely popular in their native New Zealand, the 52-year old Topps have been bringing audiences their unique blend of music and comedy (and yodeling) since the 1980s.

What most impressed me was their dedication to progressive activism (Billy Bragg describes them as “an anarchist variety act”). Over the years, they have campaigned for LGBT rights, participated in protests in support of civil rights for New Zealand’s indigenous Maoris, and worked in support of the anti-nuke movement (to name a few). What’s refreshing about their political work is that there is no grandstanding; you don’t doubt their sincerity for a second (“what you see is what you get” says one of their fans). Pooley’s film is as upbeat and straightforward as her subjects; imparting  the  joy of creating something that is at once entertaining and inspiring

SIFF 2010: Queen of the Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 29, 2010)

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I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me both laugh and cry-but northwest filmmaker Taggart Siegel’s Queen of the Sun is one such film. Appearing at first glance to be a distressing, hand-wringing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its accelerated frequency of occurrences over the past decade, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these seemingly insignificant yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. We bipeds harbor a high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these “lowly” insects are, in fact, the boss of us.

It turns out that there have been voices in the wilderness over the years; although they have been largely ignored. Albert Einstein once said: “If bees die, man will only have four years of life left.”  As early as 1923, Austrian philosopher-scientist-social thinker and bio-dynamic agriculturalist icon Rudolph Steiner warned that within 100 years, without careful cultivation and continued awareness of the delicate symbiotic relationship we share with them, the honeybees would begin to dissipate (silly Rudy).

Siegel documents how, in the 80-odd year interim between Steiner’s dire prediction and what is happening now, we have plowed ahead in our typical clueless fashion, taking and taking and not giving enough back. Siegel rounds up the usual suspects, like mite infestations, pesticides, and the use of domesticated colonies in mechanized industrial pollination (especially in regards to mono-cropping, for which the bees are sometimes fortified with corn syrup, of all things).

The film is not all gloom and doom.  In countries where toxic pesticides are currently banned, Colony Collapse Syndrome has been virtually non-existent (surprise surprise).  And there are  uplifting interludes throughout profiling individuals who offer a philosophical/spiritual perspective on the human-bee connection.

And perhaps most importantly, we meet people proactively working on solutions; biodynamic beekeepers, organic farmers, and some urban beekeepers in the heart of the Bronx who are risking actual imprisonment for maintaining their rooftop hives (obviously, there are some ridiculous laws that are screaming to be stricken from the books). The film is beautifully photographed, well-paced and features a lovely score by Jami Sieber. I’ll tell you one thing- after watching this you’ll never take that jar of honey for granted again.

SIFF 2010: Nowhere Boy ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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There’s nary a tricksy or false note in this little gem from U.K. director Sam Taylor-Wood, which is the toppermost of the poppermost on my SIFF list so far this year. Aaron Johnson gives a terrific, James Dean-worthy performance as a teenage John Lennon. The story zeroes in on a specific, crucially formative period of the musical icon’s life beginning just prior to his first meet-up with Paul McCartney, and ending on the eve of the “Hamburg period”. The story is not so much about the Fabs, however, as it is about the complex and mercurial dynamic of the relationship between John, his Aunt Mimi (Kirstin Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). The entire cast is excellent, but Scott Thomas (one of the best actresses strolling the planet) handily walks away with the film as the woman who raised John from childhood.

SIFF 2010: Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll is a frenetic and cacophonous biopic that attempts to paint a portrait of the late proto-punk rocker Ian Dury…with rather broad strokes. Andy Serkis does do an amazing job at convincingly affecting the polio-twisted physicality and equally twisted persona of the man who gave us classics like “Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick”, “Spasticus Autisicus” and the eponymous anthem, which has also become an oft-repeated catchphrase.

Despite some rousing music numbers and a vastly entertaining Serkis (playing his gruff-voiced Dury like a cross between Joel Grey’s emcee in Cabaret and Robert Newton’s Long John Silver in Treasure Island), director Mat Whitecross (who seems heavily influenced  by Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz) and screenwriter Paul Viraugh never quite get a handle (or a rhythm stick?) on what it was that made Dury tick.

SIFF 2010: The Extra Man **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 22, 2010)

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SIFF’s opening night film is an uneven, yet at times drolly amusing dramedy from American Splendor directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. The directors co-scripted with Jonathan Ames (adapting from his source novel). Once again, Berman and Pulcini plunge into a writer’s mind-well, two N.Y.C. writers-a young aspiring novelist (Paul Dano) obsessed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a playwright (Kevin Kline), who rents him a room. Both characters’ eccentricities pile up faster than you can say “cross-dressers and gigolos”. The film is a quirky, oddball mash-up of The Producers and Midnight Cowboy. John C. Reilly and Katie Holmes also join the fray. Kline’s wondrously insane performance is the main attraction, and Dano officially confirms what I have suspected for some time now: he is the Bud Cort of his generation.