Tchoupitoulas is a rare thing, an aesthetic antidote to the info-dump documentary tradition of talking head interviews and old snapshots. Described in the press notes as a night-time “piggyback ride” through the French Quarter, it’s more like a sweet re-imagining of James Joyce’s “Araby.” That short story culminates in a child’s dispiriting revelation that all that glitters in a bazaar is not gold, but Tchoupitoulasstrikes at something more ambivalent and certainly more beguiling, the bleary-eyed altered state of a 3AM comedown after a night of revels.
Our subjects are a trio of brothers whose bustling New Orleans home reminds of the McCallister house at Christmas in Home Alone, except full of good people. L.A.-based Ohio natives Bill and Turner Ross follow closely behind them as they take the ferry across the water and wander through the music and vendor-filled streets of the French Quarter, occasionally leaving to rove through more restricted spaces like a cabaret and a rock club. In the youngest brother William they have a charismatic narrator. A recurring motif, with which the film also opens, finds him recounting in hyper-articulate voiceover a series of dreams that are at least as surreal as Linda Manz’s narration about becoming a mud doctor “checkin’ out the eart’” in Days of Heaven. Terrence Malick seems a touchstone in other ways, too: a long twilight setpiece where the children roam through the haunted remains of an abandoned ship they call the Titanic – William briefly pauses to strike an MJ pose beneath the chandelier – is as free-form as the grass-stomping centrepiece in The Tree of Life. The brothers Ross jettison all pretence of found footage and simply refuse to account for why a camera crew might be invited on this voyage, particularly after the kids miss the last ferry and are presumably left roaming without adult supervision. It’s a smart move with a beautiful payoff: a high-energy, wondrous, and wistful look at boyhood that dispenses with banal questions about the adults behind the camera. ***1/2/****
Director Corey Lee stages a moving reunion with his infamous but distant father in Legend of a Warrior. As a martial arts grandmaster and lauded trainer famed for ushering former pupil Billy Chau to a kickboxing world championship, Frank Lee spent his son’s formative years in gyms, training surrogate children while Corey went largely unattended. Now his son is trying to reconnect, relocating to the elder Lee’s Edmonton gym for a rigorous five-month training program that will submerge him in his charismatic father’s world while taking him away from his own young children. What follows is both an observational record of that process and a subtle father-son melodrama, punctuated by animated interludes that turn Frank’s early days in Canada and youth in Hong Kong into a comic-strip biography.
An archival camcorder video from the 80s is revealing: Frank tells his students to think of him as their sifu – something between a teacher, father, and half-brother, the person who ensures their development after they’ve left the nest. That message is absorbed by his son’s film, which covers the same ground in asking what teachers and fathers owe to their protégées, and vice versa. At times the younger Lee’s voiceover feels intrusive, but as his training progresses and as Frank becomes more forthcoming about his past, the film becomes a rich portrait of two men dealing with a complicated generational crisis. As the director tells his own son, who is reluctantly learning to speak Cantonese in the doc’s early moments, his Chinese culture is being “whittled away” the more distanced he becomes from both the place and the practices of his ancestry. While his insistence on coercing Frank to travel back to Hong Kong with him late in their training seems a bit indulgent at first – a self-help lesson about exploring one’s origins at another person’s cost – it results in a deeply affecting conversation about the trade-offs of uprooting oneself and building up a family legacy, or failing to, in another country. ***/****
****/**** Image A Sound A Extras B starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan, based on the novel by John le Carré directed by Tomas Alfredson
by Walter Chaw The easy thing is to say that Tomas Alfredson has followed up his tremendous vampire flick Let the Right One In with another vampire flick, a story of Cold War British Intelligence as men in shadows, exhausted, living off the vibrancy of others. Yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the Swedish director's adaptation of John le Carré's seminal spy novel, is something a good deal more than a clever segue from one genre film to another. Less a companion piece to the latest Mission: Impossible than a bookend to Lars Von Trier's end-of-the-world Melancholia, it's a character study, sure, but more accurately it's an examination of a culture of gestures and intimations, where a flutter of an eyelid causes a hurricane in another part of a corrupt, insular world. Naturally, its timeliness has nothing to do with its literal milieu (all Russian bogeys and '70s stylings)--nothing to do with recent world events that have an entire CIA cell blown up in Iran and Lebanon--and everything to do with its overpowering atmosphere of feckless power and utter resignation. It's a spy thriller that Alfred Lord Tennyson would've written--the very filmic representation of acedia.
****/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras A starring Catherine Deneuve, Jean Sorel, Michel Piccoli, Geneviève Page screenplay by Luis Buñuel and Jean-Claude Carrière, based on the novel by Joseph Kessel directed by Luis Buñuel
by Jefferson Robbins It's fitting that a film about a woman agonizingly balanced between sexual repression and sexual freedom depicts an inner life balanced between two different periods in history. The opening moments of Luis Buñuel's Belle de jour lead us to believe it will be a period piece. In a static wide shot, a black horse-drawn coach on a country lane leisurely approaches. Two bystanders appear to root in the hedges along the path, too distant to be clearly made out: Are they peasants? Estate groundskeepers? Our eyes are programmed now to expect something Edwardian, or, more applicable to the subject matter, Victorian. Only when an automobile makes a turn in the distance do we realize the setting is contemporary. The modernity comes as a jolt, but from this sequence we will return to some kind of imagined past again and again as the heroine--a very modern woman, one whose frightened explorations map the sexual realms of our own later decades--slips between the cracks in her own mind.
Ariel Nasr’s The Boxing Girls of Kabulopens with clandestine footage of an execution in Kabul’s Olympic Stadium, where members of the Taliban force a woman to crawl before shooting her at close-range. That image haunts the alternately uplifting and sobering narrative that follows, which shadows the faltering Olympic hopes of a trio of young female boxers in a country where patriarchal attitudes toward women, particularly athletes, range from mild acceptance to violent hostility. This is a vibrant film, coloured by the verve of its protagonists, Shahla and siblings Sadaf and Shabnam, who speak candidly about their progressive values and their anxieties about the precariousness of their position amidst threats of assault and kidnapping. They’re presented as jocks, so it’s especially jarring when their future turns out to depend less on their athleticism than on the volatile political conditions of their country and its stance on the rights of women.
Nasr trains his camera on how these attitudes trickle down from government apparatuses and warring ideologues’ position papers to the off-the-cuff remarks of average citizens. Shahla’s brother, for example, vocally opposes their training – ostensibly because of the very real threats posed by more conservative men, who would happily regulate their household on their father’s behalf. Yet Nasr is wise not to take him at his word, later showing him scolding his sister for her lax decorum at dinner and quickly turning it into a referendum on the importance of disciplining women. The film gracefully links these charged domestic scenes to the political arena the girls are always necessarily in by virtue of what they do. But at heart this is a sports doc, and Nasr is just as adept at capturing the high energy of their training sessions, the exhilaration of their first encounters with proper rings in international competitions, and the deflation that comes from losing matches to women with far better training and far stronger financial and social support. It’s an absorbing profile, and at a mere 52 minutes, all too brief. ***1/2/****
A few minutes into Kevin Hegge’s long-gestating She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column, a critic calls the titular feminist post-punk act an art band that wasn’t necessarily arty. That sounds like an interesting distinction, but it’s also as far as the idea goes in a doc that almost makes up in enthusiasm what it lacks in depth. Hegge sets a fast pace, and the early history of intellectual centre and drummer GB Jones and lead singer Caroline Azar’s collaboration nicely establishes their dynamic of cryptic rock deity and big-sweatered frontwoman, with plenty of footage of their debut in the Toronto punk scene. (Azar suggests that their off-kilter sound was a happy byproduct of their musical ignorance.) The film picks up once the band intersects with a certain go-go dancing nascent film theorist by the name of Bryan Bruce, now better known as alt filmmaker Bruce LaBruce, of No Skin off My Ass fame. Along with Jones, LaBruce ran the influential queer punk zine J.D’s.,and Hegge effectively incorporates this archival material, as well as their collaborative Super 8 films, into a mixed-media portrait of Fifth Column’s role in the formation of queercore. But the film is weirdly shy about the bandmates’ sexuality, abruptly stopping the conversation with Azar’s story about wanting to elope with Jones in her late teens. For all Hegge's attention to the combative spirit of the Toronto zine wars in the late 80s, the city also comes off abstractly, as a scene that could be situated anyplace. Fifth Column fans and queercore enthusiasts will appreciate the rare present-day input from Jones, but overall this is a surprisingly conventional story of a band that, as one member says, recorded the sounds of everything falling apart. **1/2/****
Like Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s vital This is Not a Film, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorrydelights in capturing its dissident subject lounging in the company of animals. Panahi has his iguana, which roams the Tehran high-rise to which he’s been confined by Iranian authorities, and Ai, a target of systematic harassment by the Chinese government, has his cats, one of whose ability to open doors mystifies him. By framing Ai in this domestic scene, director Alison Klayman finds warmth in an artist recognized for his compulsive refusal to comply with draconian authority – see, for instance, the series of photos where he smashes ancient pots and strategically places his middle finger in front of cultural landmarks. Situating Ai as a cat man might seem precious, but Klayman is also doing sly political work here. She’s demystifying an avowed radical, and showing (without telling) how his oppositional stance to the government in projects like a multi-year effort to catalogue the students who died in 2008’s Sichuan earthquake due to shoddily constructed buildings are born not of snark but out of a real respect for individuals, be they undocumented students or pets.
That’s not to say there isn’t a trickster streak in Ai’s work, which collapses distinctions between activism and art. A Chinese art critic points out that there’s something of the hooligan to Ai’s insistence on getting in officials’ faces – sometimes literally, snatching a guard’s sunglasses to force eye contact – and adds that it’s a sane response to a governing body founded on hooliganism. Always engrossing, the film is at its strongest when it tracks Ai through his Kafkaesque negotiations with a system that refuses to acknowledge him. For a long stretch, we follow him as he files a complaint for a head trauma sustained in Chengdu, where he was set to testify for fellow earthquake activist Tan Zuoren before being detained and assaulted by local police. Ai acknowledges this complaint won’t go anywhere but invites Klayman to film him as he goes through the process anyway. The result is a documentary-within-the-documentary that champions due process when it's at its most endangered, and subtly argues for informed protest within a broken system as the highest form of patriotism. ***1/2/****
**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A animated; screenplay by Erdman Penner, Joe Rinaldi, Ralph Wright, Don Dagradi directed by Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronomi, Wilfred Jackson
by Bill Chambers Given that it may have the most famous scene in the Disney oeuvre, it's odd that Lady and the Tramp doesn't enjoy a better, or at least bigger, reputation. The first animated feature in CinemaScope, as well as the studio's first original story1and its first dog movie (various Pluto-starring shorts notwithstanding), the film, despite earning the highest grosses of any Disney production since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, seems to have been eclipsed in the public consciousness from a genre standpoint by 101 Dalmatians and from a cinematographic standpoint by Sleeping Beauty, each of which followed so closely on Lady and the Tramp's heels as to reduce history's perception of it to a dry run. It's a bit better than that, but, coveted "Diamond" status to the contrary, frankly not one of the greats.
****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras D+ starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Baharie screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan directed by Steve McQueen
by Walter Chaw Brandon is a cipher from beginning to end, and while that's usually a detriment, in Steve McQueen's extraordinary, gruelling Shame, it's key to why the whole thing works. Even better is that Brandon, a widely-presumed sex addict (to my mind, the film works better without a pop diagnosis), is played by Michael Fassbender, he of the matinee-idol looks and piercing green eyes. It's interesting that what he plays best is ambiguity (next up: a robot in Prometheus), an unknowable quality that inspired McQueen's previous installation piece, Hunger, making the lonesome protest of hunger-striker Bobby Sands into a holy mystery, a relic unknowable and his English bull tormentors Romans with spears knowing not what they do. No less ecclesiastical, Shame is a feature-length indulgence and scourging, making it fair to wonder if McQueen's aim isn't to assail each of the Deadly Sins in due course--his own septet on glowing, adjoined celluloid panels. It's a great explanation of the title, and makes me wonder if the next one won't be "Avarice." Anyway, the film only works because Fassbender is beautiful. Ugly guys don't get to be ashamed of sex.
Newmarket-born author Mazo de la Roche hit the big leagues in 1927 when her third novel Jalna, the first entry in a lucrative sixteen-part series, won a $10 000 award from the ATLANTIC MONTHLY. In terms of prestige – particularly Canadians’ favourite sort, the kind that’s granted from elsewhere – you could think of her boon alongside Yann Martel’s Booker win in 2002, which similarly propelled a relatively unappreciated home-grown talent to international literary celebrity. But few people make the connection these days, or read de la Roche at all. Maya Gallus’s playful docudrama The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche does a good job of redressing this lacuna. Through a mixture of dramatic re-enactments with actress Severn Thompson, bitterly funny interviews with de la Roche’s adopted daughter, and talking head testimony from Canadian authors Susan Swan and Marie-Claire Blais, the film situates de la Roche both within her early celebrity in Canada and within the larger cosmopolitan movements of first wave feminism and modernism, with which she was loosely allied.
Like de la Roche’s Whiteoaks Chronicles, the tone is provincial, and dramatizations of Thompson cryptically fielding interview questions about her favourite foods like aDon’t Look Back-era Bob Dylan are a bit silly. The film’s eyebrow-raised exploration of de la Roche’s lifelong Boston marriage with cousin Caroline Clement, though, is interesting. So is one biographer’s contention that however genteel the Jalna novels might seem, and however vague the author’s public persona was, de la Roche nevertheless wrote herself into the series via a number of queer male author surrogates. Gallus doesn’t go as far as she could in broaching her subject’s sexuality, but Blais fills in the blanks, pointing out that the author had no bohemian community in Ontario, and wondering what might have been if, like Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, de la Roche had set up shop in Europe. That’s a mystery that nicely justifies the film, as well as a return to Jalna. ***/****
“They call me Silver Platter.” That's the opening salvo of Wu Tsang’s Wildness, which hands its narrating duties off to the so-named bar in the East end of Los Angeles’s MacArthur Park, a safe space for undocumented Latina trans women that turns into a largely cissexual queer hipster party called Wildness on Tuesday nights. It’s a bumpy ride from there. Tsang, the performance artist who started Wildness, smartly establishes MacArthur Park as a palimpsest, constantly transformed by waves of gentrification, economic collapse, and immigration. (That none of these terms are spelled out is also nice.) He brings the same consideration to the complex history of the Silver Platter, attending even-handedly at first to the owners and to the bar’s shifting clientele.
So far so good, but what about that voiceover – in Spanish, no less? Tsang’s depiction of the Silver Platter as a gathering place that opens its arms to sad wanderers recalls nothing so much as Beowulf’s Heorot, that “foremost of halls under heaven.” A decent conceit, but things go south early on, when the bar wonders aloud about what will become of it, and calls out to its lost children, chief among them Tsang himself. A little of this self-aggrandizement goes a long way, but unfortunately there’s a lot of it. Tsang’s acknowledgement of his egocentrism as the director of Wildness the film is welcome, I suppose, but he’s less graceful about his status as the founder of Wildness the party. When the bar’s owner passes away and the family disobeys his wish that the property be inherited by his male partner, Tsang and company pulled Wildness in protest. Tsang has the Silver Platter alternately scold him for his impetuousness and soberly give him props for taking a stand, which officially turns this complex portrait of a space into a faux self-critical, fawning self-portrait. Too bad. **/****
Early in Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed’s Ballroom Dancer, we see 33-year-old Russian ballroom dancing champion Slavik tell his students that a dance between two people is an everyday story, not a big drama. The goal, he tells them, is to get on the other person’s wavelength. Slavik’s lesson is taken by Bonke and Koefoed’s film, which strives to get on the physical and emotional wavelengths of an aging artist who can’t get back to his salad days with former partner and reigning champion Joanna. His training sequences with new (younger) partner and lover Anna are rendered in dynamic camera movements that position the spectator as a surrogate partner in their tense mating dance, which yields disappointing results in competition. The filmmakers find a way to capture less obviously visually charged moments as well, framing Slavik and Anna in two-shots that emphasize their distance from one another even as they share the same space: Anna seems always to be hovering in the background on her Blackberry, eager for a window out. Slavik’s journey is a tricky one, then – a quest for self-mastery negotiated with another person who has her own set of goals.
There’s plenty of everyday drama here, but Ballroom Dancer is hampered by Anna’s growing disinterest in training and presumably the documentary. For those of us who can’t appreciate the technical nature of ballroom dancing, she’s the only real access point to her brooding partner. Her blankness, coupled with Bonke and Koefoed’s brave but misguided aversion to showing archival footage of the Slavik-Joanna partnership, makes it hard to tell whether Slavik has lost something physically or just can’t get it together with his new partner. It’s not that he’s a poor subject: his insistence on better articulating himself in conversation with one of his many trainers (a rotating cast of counsellors) proves him to be as pensive as he is graceful. But without a clear sense of his strategy or personality, the film’s dourness takes its toll. **1/2/****
Stacy Peralta returns to skateboarding culture with mixed results in Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. A sort of sequel to Dogtown and Z-Boys, which focused on his mates in early 1970s crew Zephyr, Peralta’s new film turns to the titular group of talented young misfits that he and business partner George Powell recruited in 1978, who went on to dominate the sport for the next decade. Like Dogtown, this is a likeable memory box of a movie, which briskly mixes up talking head interviews with scratchy archival footage and snapshots visibly manipulated by the director’s own hand. Peralta has a knack for converting alternative social history into this strangely effective hybrid of MTV and family album aesthetics. His firsthand experience and easy conversance with his subjects – who sometimes boyishly narrate his past actions to him with the kind of reverence guys usually reserve for dads and deities – makes for a good hook, and certainly there are worse tour guides through skater culture than a scrappy Jeff Daniels doppelgänger. Still, for an autobiography, this enthusiastic campfire reunion can feel cursory, especially at a bloated two-hour running time.
The main problem, which might be a moot point for viewers already well-versed in the personal sagas of skaters like Tony Hawk and Tommy Guerrero, is the film’s insularity. Peralta and his protégées have immaculately preserved memories (thanks to their avowed disinterest in any serious drug use), but while the Bones Brigade’s early successes are methodically catalogued, eventually the timeline gets washed out in a deluge of insider anecdotes punctuated by weak assertions that “That changed everything.” It doesn’t help that the complicated tricks they invented are virtually indistinguishable on film. Soft-spoken tricks man Rodney Mullen is compelling all the same, and it’s his lyrical testimony that most suggests what the film might have been. While Hawk got the video game franchise for his technical mastery, it’s hinted that Mullen was the aesthete the others envied. Towards the end he gives a monologue about authorship that’s easily the best thing in the movie; you’ll wish Bones Brigade was his autobiography.**1/2/****
**½/**** starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, John C. Reilly screenplay by Bill Condon, based on the musical by Fred Ebb & Bob Fosse and the play by Maurine Dallas Watkins directed by Rob Marshall
by Walter Chaw As adaptations of stage musicals go, Rob Marshall's film of the Bob Fosse revue Chicago is professional and slick, if lit too darkly and oddly flaccid. Its musical set-pieces are generally excellent, with a trio of performances from Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere that surprise with their versatility and verve, but the unevenness of Marshall's direction lends the picture a sort of confused rhythm that threatens to stall it during every narrative stretch. Buoyed by Sam Mendes's recent Broadway revival of another Kander and Ebb classic, "Cabaret", "Chicago" suffers from a distinct slightness, its attack on the evils of media culture not so much current as battered to death by decades of same. Chicago offers no surprises, then, only really coming to life during a press-conference scene with Zellweger the dummy and lawyer Gere the ventriloquist and puppet master. It's gorgeously shot and choreographed and throws the malaise of the rest of the picture into sharp relief.
***½/**** starring Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius
by Walter Chaw It's tempting to dismiss Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist as fluff. It's tempting to take the side of Kim Novak when she complains about this fluff using Bernard Hermann's Vertigo score in vain, and a few critics and Internet memes have done exactly that. Yet The Artist is more than a passing fancy precisely because it uses the Vertigo theme correctly in a sentence. Indeed, it even has its way with film preservationists and other snobs (the kind who champion Hugo, for instance) by suggesting that obsessive movie love to the exclusion of all else is the same sort of illness, ultimately, as necrophilia. In the fluffy course of its runtime, in fact,The Artist manages to be as subversive and scabrous a Hollywood artifact as Sunset Blvd., finding its monkey funeral towards the end instead of at the beginning but presenting a close-up Mr. DeMille at its conclusion almost as ambiguous and doomed. It's popular because it keeps its edges carefully sheathed...but they're there. And I think people are offended once they realize--most of them long, long after the fact, and through other avenues--that Hazanavicius had the temerity to peanut-butter a little obsessive, consumptive, solipsistic love in there to gum up all the crevices. I'll be honest: I think that if you don't believe The Artist is correct in its use of Vertigo, you probably also thought that Vertigo was a love story.