Sunday, May 31, 2015

Film Review - Mad Max: Fury Road

Manic is the best word to describe the opening scenes of Mad Max: Fury Road. The film opens with Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) standing on top of a sand dune beside his car staring off into the sand filled wasteland. He gives a bit of history remaking that he was a cop in the past and constantly hears and sees the loved ones that he couldn't save in the new dyspotic world. His only instinct is survival. Then right on cue he's captured and taken to the Citadel a gigantic chunk of rock ruled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays- Byrne) Who is worshipped like a god by the rabble that stand at the base of the mountain waiting for Joe to turn on the taps for a brief moment to provide a few mouthfuls of fresh water dubbed Aqua Cola. Joe also has 5 wives that he breeds and an army of war boys to do his bidding.  All hoping for a glance from Joe, their name to be called or to driver one of the welded together Franken vehicles, die in honour and head shiny and chrome into Valhalla to be born again.

Max enters this world to be used as a blood bank for sick war boys once the hive discover that he is a universal donor. After a failed escape which is the first of the films very satisfying series of action sequences he is hauled out into the field to supply plasma to Nux (Nicholas Hoult) a  recovering War boy driver who does not want to give up his steering wheel and miss the pursuit of Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who has gone rogue kidnapped the wives with the aim to bring them to freedom and safety away from Joe.

Director George Miller slips easily back into the world that he created and presented in three times before prior starting with 1979's Mad Max, the consensus best of the series 1981's The Road Warrior and 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. It's a rare feat but Miller has outdone the prior three films with the fourth outing. Visual stimulation is everywhere as Max and Furiosa are thrown together with the wives and chased along Fury Road from the Citadel east to the Salt fields and back. The chasers are armed with a vehicle full of rhythmic drummers.  A jumpy double axe guitarist cranking out power chords with flames flying out of the end of his weapon. Plus pole acrobats that bend towards and away from Furiosa's War Rig snatching at the wives or dropping projectiles with every pass.

Tom Hardy brings a different feel to the Mad Max character. He is a man of very few words and uses his eyes as his main tool of communication when he does not have a gun barrel to emphasis his gestures. Max is always on the look out for his best option to survive. Anyone can be friend or foe depending on the current predictament.  Charlize Theron is every bit's Max's equal if not more integral to the film as Furiosa. She is an expert shot as demonstrated in a desperate exchange with a pursuer. When the group are down to their last shot Max hands the gun to Furiosa to take it. She is willing to make deals to help with the escape but is always weary of her partners. It's very clear when Furosia is ready for serious action as she spreads black grease paint across her forehead and exercises her mechanical left hand. The other standout character is Nicholas Hoult as Nux. First loyal to a fault to Immortan Joe, Nux switches sides after a slight from Joe and comforting talk from one of the wives. He becomes helpful to the rebels using his driving skills. He is fearless in battle aided by his steadfast belief that if he dies in battle he will go to Valhalla to be born again and return. He is the prototypical war boy teetering towards death, spraying silver spray pain over is lips and mouth in battle to look shiny and chrome.

George Miller has crafted an excellent action film featuring a simple and symmetrical plot.  The production is wall to wall action with just the right amount of a dialogue driven moments mixed in. Mad Max: Fury Road is the epitome of a summer block buster.  It is a film that I can highly recommend.

**** Out of 4
Mad Max : Fury Road | George Miller | Australia / U.S.A. | 2015 | 120 Minutes.

Tags: Post Apocalypse, Wasteland,  Captured, Breeding, Revenge, Welded, Water, Gasoline, Rock, Sand, Green Place, Hope.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

HotDocs 2015 Film Review - Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.

As happens often with documentaries Director Nick Beradini had a different story in mind when he first went to TASER International to interview Senior Executive Steve Tuttle. Beradini planned to do a story on one taser incident but as he gathered more information he decided to do the feature on the Taser itself, the stance of the company leaders that it saves lives and the cases of serious injury or death that have occurred.

Beradini begins the story with Taser founder Jack Cover who was inspired by a space story that he read as a child Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. The theory being using a stun gun instead of live bullets would be a better option in most cases. The film opens with Cover testing on Bison's then jumps ahead a few years to when Patrick and Tom Smith decide to buy Cover's patent. The Smith brothers early testing showed the device did not have enough stopping power. This changed with the decision to up the wattage 50,000 volts. The brothers invited law enforcement departments to bring their toughest guys to their offices in Scottsdale, Arizona and they were all stopped cold by the new improved Taser device.

Beradini speaks to the employees at Taser, lawyers who have brought suits against the company doctors and academics on both sides of the safety debate. Detractors point to the limited charge times in the testing vs. the extended multiple applications in the field. The devices can cause extreme lactic acid build and put the target into cardiac arrest either of which could lead to death. The film also points out that the company knew of the link to cardiac arrest as far back as 2006 but did not inform their law enforcement partners.

The most compelling part of the piece is the depositions taken from the brothers and Senior VP Steve Tuttle for one of the lawsuits. The executives appear to be almost blind to the fact that their device could cause any harm at all. CEO Patrick Smith often points to the founding reason for the company to save lives repeating his founding story of two friends that had died during road raid incident that could have been avoided if Tasers had existed. They cling to their saving lives argument pointing to the fact that they are used by 17,000 law enforcement agencies in 107 countries. Even their website features a counter of human lives the device has saved.  The other is the Robert Dziekanski case at the Vancouver Airport. The Polish immigrant was confused, disoriented and ended up dead after being Tasered by the RCMP.  The Smiths attended the Braidwood inquiry in Vancouver and continued their practice to deflect the death to the victims themselves. Proclaiming as they have in all 300 death cases that the victim would have died due to other underlying health problems if the taser was not used. A favourite reference is to the cases of athletes who die during an event due to previously unknown health reasons.

Beradini stays mostly down the middle of the road during the piece. He does point out that of all the suits that were brought against the company they have only lost one and that original verdict was greatly reduced on appeal. The company did begin to advise law enforcement agencies that they should stop aiming for the chest not for safety reasons but instead for risk management. Taser International also pledge to defend the agencies that use their device but they failed to do so for the Warren Michigan police service after the death of a teen who in turn stopped using the devices. Beradini also touches on the lack of outside training options, no regulation on the devices or the necessary medical training needed in the field to recognize the signs of excessive lactic acid build up or  the onset of cardiac arrest as in the heart wrenching case of 23 year old Stanley Harlan the original case that Beradini wanted to investigate who's slow motion death from multiple tasers following a traffic stop across the street from his home is caught on police dash cam as his mother watched the events unfold.

*** 1/2 out of 4

Tom Swift and His Electric Rife | Nick Beradini | U.S.A. | 2015 | 100 Minutes.

Tags: Jack Cover,  TASER, X26, Cardiac Arrest, Braidwood Inquiry, Law Suit, Moberly Police Department.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

HotDocs 2015 Film Review - Best of Enemies

In 1968 ABC was clearly the third rated American network.  They had little money and faced with covering both the Democratic and Republican national conventions in Miami and Chicago respectively.  While NBC and CBS were planning elaborate gavel to gavel coverage ABC could only afford a short prime time show each night and needed a hook to get some viewers. They decided to get one voice from the right and another from the left. Both educated, opinionated and strong orators of the English language to debar the issues of the conventions. 5 shows in Miami followed by 5 in Chicago.  The obvious choice from the left was William F. Buckley. Buckley was conservative, right wing, Libertarian and Christian. He was editor of the national review. Buckley accepted the invitation stating that he would debate annoy from the left expect for one person who he called the devil Gore Vidal so that's who ABC chose to oppose him.

If Buckley was the poster boy for Conservatism, Vidal was his foil; an author wrote books featuring homosexuals as normal members in society in the 50's.  He wrote the screenplay for Ben Hur. His current project at the time Myra Breckenridge he story of a man playing a woman playing a man was the smash hit. ABC news director Howard K. Smith had his two commentators for the debate.

The debates at the Republican convention in Miami established each man's position. Vidal took shots at the National Review while Buckley fired back at Myra Breckenridge a book he had not yet read. Vidal spoke to the rights of the poor, the adversaries debated the merits of the Vietnam war and the merits of Buckley's interview show Firing Line on PBS when he said among other controversial things to Mohammad Ali that the Muslim religion is a disease of the mind. Buckley tried to pin down Vidal's sexual preferences but his combatant responded that he shed sexuality labels. Vidal's crushing final blow: the Republicans were Right Wing, Greedy, Nazi Fascists who hid all of their ant-social activities behind the catch phrase of Law and Order.

A week later he scene shifted to the Democrats in Chicago that turned into a police state for the convention. The state of the city and the subsequent riots became a major topic of the debates. Vidal went out into the streets with actor Paul Newman and author Arthur Miller reporting on the state of the city in the next nights debate. Buckley's opening salvo was that he had read Myra Breckenridge and didn't like it.  Vidal spoke of the city being like a soviet regime littered with agent provocateurs in the crowd. Buckley responded that he was surprised at how much restraint the police showed. Then on the topic of Vietnam called opponents of the war Nazi appeasers. Vidal volleyed back calling Buckley a crypto Nazi at which point Buckley completely lost his cool on air. He called Vidal a Queer told him to quit calling him a crypto-Nazi or he'd sock Vidal in the goddamm face and he'll stay plastered. The minute the words left his mouth he knew he has lost the debates plus he saw the satisfied smile on Vidal's face at the end of the outburst.

Directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville do a masterful job of revealing the back story of both men. Mixing in their academic records, family backgrounds, likes and haunts and future conflicts after the debates ended. ABC won big in the ratings and these debates were the start of the left/right formula that is still used today as commentators scream at each other on Fox News and other programs. The documentary is an enthralling political commentary and a film and piece of history that I highly recommend.

**** Out of Four

Best of Enemies | Robert Gordon / Morgan Neville | U.S.A. | 2015 | 87 Minutes.

Tags: 1968 National Conventions,  ABC News,  Left vs Right, Conservative, Liberal, National Review, Myra Breckenridge.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

HotDocs 2015 Film Review - Seth's Dominion

Seth (Gregory Gallant) spends a lot of time in his head. He writes a comic strip called Palookaville plus has many other outlets to fill his creative mind. Seth is the epitome of quirky from the nature of his perfusion being alone for most of the day to his every present hat and spectacles. He prefers the term Cartoon Strip to Graphic Novel seeing the genre as the perfect venue to tell mundane in interior stories as opposed to grandiose adventures.

Director Luc Chamerland uses a combination of interviews and NFB short files to present the story. The story was crafted between 2006-2013 during a series of interviews with Seth. The cartoonist stories are about his life. His childhood accounts focus on the writer's strong affection for his mother. He speaks of her laughter in another part of his house when he was writing his comics as a child. He laments his decision as a big boy to not kiss his mother again which stood until he was adult.  He talks about his transistor radio that he would turn on when his patents were fighting.

Seth's early adulthood is the next main feature of the film. These years were mainly spent alone and when not writing Gallant would go for extensive walks paying attention to the most mundane things. On one walk he comes across someone weekly garbage stopping to listen a disregarded greeting card playing for he's a jolly good fellow. Another a regular walk through a series of garbage dumpsters arrange in a circle where Seth used to state his current thoughts out loud.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspects of the film are Seth's hobbies that could be stand alone careers on their own.  He is building a town in his basement out of cardboard boxes.  He paints and often puts on marionette shows. Seth admits that he is one for nostalgia looking to a golden past. Then there is his daily routine. Starting with an 8:00 wake followed by starting work in his basement studio at 9:00 all the way to his serious evening writing between 8:30 and 11 or 11:30 P.M. He takes time out for dinner with his wife between 6 and 7 plus a nap at 7:00 because after all he is a fifty-year-old man.

Seth's Dominion is an eventful study of the personal quirks and activities of an artistic mind. The directors capture Seth's unconventional personality, traits and take on everyday life.  They delve in detail into his method to produce his craft. Seth is an intriguing character with many layers that could have filled a production twice as long. But as he states in the end he will not do another documentary on himself again. It's  a film that I can recommend.

*** Out of 4.

Seth's Dominion | Luc Chamberland | Canada | 2014 \ 42 Minutes.

Tags; Cartoonist, Graphic Novel, Loner, Quirk, Guelph, Strathroy, Nostalgia.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

HotDocs 2015 Film Review - The Bolivian Case

Three teenage girls from Norway are detained while attempting to leave Bolivia with 22Kg of cocaine sewn into the lining of their suitcases. All three tell different stories and fingers are pointed at each girl.  The three are held in the San Sebastian Prison in the Cochabamba. The prison itself is the first of the series of unbelievable aspects of the film and the story.

The San Sebastian prison is more like a market that a prison. It appears that inmates have free reign to move around and there are both men and women present. In fact two of the girls end up pregnant and give birth during their time in jail. The first of the three to break from the group is Christina Ogarden.  She was the last one to get in on the trip to Boliva. Her parents raise her $30,000 bond to get her out on bail with the stipulation that she does not leave Bolivia. Christina soon breaks the terms of her release seemingly with the help of the Norwegian government, first getting out of Bolivia and then on to Norway itself. Back in Norway the other members of the gang are charged with masterminding the event or helping the girls. Each will face trial and possibly prison terms in the Norwegian penal system.

Director Violeta Ayala captures the sensational to the ludicrous aspects of the case. Christina who had returned to Norway was walking freely on the streets until the government decided to try her for her role as a mule in the incident. The other two girls Madeline then Stina became pregnant while serving their jail time. The courts then give Stina bail for $60,000 but she is not aloud to leave the city much more the country however Ayala's lens is present as she skypes with her mother and magazine columnists who plot her escape out of Bolivia, first to Brazil then on to Norway with her own camera crew in tow.  Just about every other character in the film has a moment when they look into the camera and state. This is between us right?

The accused millennials never seem to grasp the seriousness of their situation. The don't think of the consequences of what could go wrong with many smiling and joking about the events until they realize that they are facing real jail time. It's also a compelling social study on how the public reacts to the involved parties. There appears to be a split in who's viewed as real Norwegians. The accused of South American heritage or dwellers of the big city of Oslo seem to get harsher treatment than the others involved.

The Bolivian Case deals with events ripped right from the headlines of magazines and newspapers on two continents. It's never clear who knew what parts of the complete plan but it does appear that those accused that told a straight story seemed to get a worse fate in the end.  Director Ayala presents a concise fast paced story that is worth a look.

***  Out of 4.

The Bolivian Tale | Violeta Ayala | Bolivia / Australia / Columbia / U.S.A. | 2015 | 75 Minutes.

Tags: Smuggling, Cocaine, Mule, Prison, Bail, Flight Risk, South America, Foreigners.

HotDocs 2015 Film Review - Raiders!

Eric Zala remembers that Raiders of the Lost Arc came out in July, 1981. His future collaborator Chris Strompolos recalls seeing the film and knew right away that he had to recreate it. Strompolos realized that he could not do this on his own spotted Eric reading a Raiders comic one day on the bus to school and struck up a conversation. The pair added Jayson Lamb who had a nose for special effects making the basis to get the project off the ground.  The trio along with friends and siblings proceeded to spend the next 7 summers working on the film completing every shot except for the airplane flying wing scene that was out of their budget and expertise.

The documentary Raiders! covers several main story-lines. It goes back to show scene from the original VHS tape made by the boys which is unique and compelling partly because they did not shoot the film in order leading to large swings in ages of the players as the film goes along. It also adds the attempt to get that final airplane scene done with financial backing and professionals to complete the film now 30 years later. The third branch of the film delves into the ever changing relationship between Zala and Strompolos.

Directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen open the film with Zala and Strompolos trying to secure the funds needed to shoot the airplane scene. The pair work an old time Mississippi gentleman for the money. The directors pace the film smartly. They show shots from the VHS tape then mix in stories about the main three creators along with other friend that played parts in the film. Many cast members played multiple parts especially Eric brother who had roles such as Egyptian digger #2 and Nazi solider #3 in various scenes. The point of view of Eric and Chris family are also good additions to the narrative. Eric's mother was particularly closely involved as their house was the main set for many scenes with the Zala living room turning into a movie set summer after summer. Chris' mom had an important role as well.  She worked for the local TV station and secured the cameras for the boys that they used in the shoot.

The spark for the revival of the project can be traced back to the 2002 Butt- Numb-A- Thon film marathon. An event where super movie geeks get together to watch films vintage films, premiers and trailers for 24 hours straight normally featuring a first screening of a major film for that year. Major attendees Director Eli Roth and Ain't it Cool News' Harry Knowles got their hands on a copy of the boys films and decided to show it at the event. They ran it at breakfast ahead of the big release that year Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers forty-five minutes in to the screening they had to shut it off to show Two Towers resulting in boo's from the captivated audience. The reaction led the pair to track down the authors for a special screening with the full premier treatment.

Raider! is an entertaining romp that will have audiences rooting for the kids and their adult alter egos to get the project complete. The directors handle the material well especially the twist of showing the boys scenes side by side with the original film. It's an enjoyable time at the movies and a film that I can recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4

Raiders! | Jeremy Coon / Tim Skousen | U.S.A. | 2015 | 104 Minutes.

Tags: Re create, Shot for Shot , Kids, 7 Year project, High School, Butt-Numb-A -Thon, Harry Knowles, Eli Roth.

Monday, May 4, 2015

HotDocs 2015 Film Review - Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon

National Lampoon like other media phenomenon's can trace it's roots back to Harvard University. The school had a magazine, the Harvard Lampoon that traces its origins back to 1870. Two Students Douglas Kenny and Henry Beard started out at the magazine before heading to New York and linking up with a publisher Matty Simmons to start National Lampoon in 1970.  The new magazine struggled to find it's footing with the first few issues until Michael Gross came aboard as Art Director creating the trademark realistic style of their spoof articles and spots. The magazine due to it's sophomore locker room humour still had difficulty attracting advertising until Gerard Taylor joined the staff.

The magazine soared in popularity with the core creative team in place. Two of the major contributors to the magazine early success were writers Michael O'Donoghue and Sean Kelly. Kenny and Beard worked double digit hour days to get the publication right each month but the staff also played hard as girls, drugs and alcohol were always flowing freely.  Early creative meeting consisted of the contributors getting completely intoxicated then getting down to discussing new stories for that months publication.

Director Douglas Tirola's film is a visual and musical trip back to the late sixties and early seventies. Triola mixed in stories from many of the original participants at the magazines, performers from spin off projects and current day comedic heavyweights about their thoughts on and influences of National Lampoon. The eyes are peppered with fast moving shots of magazine articles or one off cartoons that will make the viewer, gasp, groan but mostly laugh with an underlying realization that in todays politically correct world these topics would not even been brought up in mixed company let alone make it into and be celebrated in a magazine. One famous cartoons suggested that Teddy Kennedy could have been president if only he was driving a Volkswagen at Chappaquiddick. Another issue featured a Hitler lookalike residing on a tropical island with natives dressed in Nazi gear.

The wave of talent kept coming to the magazine in the mid seventies.  Chief among them P. J. O'Rourke who would go on to the the most successful editor of the monthly. The talent and ideas were so abundant the magazine branched out to a radio show that gave a voice to performers such as Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, John Belushi and Harold Ramis. Ivan Reitman eventual joined to directed this troop when their touring stage presentation started to catch steam and was met with great resistance at the outset. The publishers were approached by NBC who were planning a late night show to run it on their behalf.  The Lampoon brass turned them down. NBC instead hired Lorne Michael who lifted much of the Lampoon touring performers, acts and writers to create Saturday Night Live.

Tirola also touches on the early film success of the company going into detail of the background of the movie Animal House. The studio was resistant to the idea, the dailies and the hiring of John Landis to direct. Lampoon staffers played many of the secondary roles in the film. The genesis of Animal House could be traced back to a 1973 feature in the magazine entailed high school year book. The writers played the different types of people you meet in high school for a full year's worth of high school events. The first treatment for Animal House started in High School, then made it's way to College to become  the famous film.  The narrative also touches on Caddyshack that was really a Lampoon film as it starred members of the radio, touring stage group and was written by Doug Kenny who caddied at a golf club in his youth.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is an epic production that gives the background rise and fall of a culturally significant publication. The documentary touches on the creative talent of the key contributors, speaks to their skin of successes in Television and film and does not glamorize the consequences of the quirky behaviour of staff members or the inevitable negative consequences of the indulgence in excess of the group.  It's a film that has all the great elements that a story and venture require and a film that I can highly recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon | Douglas Triola | U.S.A. / U.K. | 2015 | 98 Minutes.

Tags; Harvard,  New York,  60's, 70's, Magazine, Off Broadway, Radio Show, Film, Drugs, Breasts.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fox Searchlight Film Review- Far From the Madding Crowd

Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) spends time in the Dorst countryside at the start of the film. The year is 1870 and her days spent riding across great hills, valleys and among the trees.  The land owner Gabriel Oak (Mattais Schoenaerts) who has 200 sheep on his 100 acres begins to notice of Ms. Everdene eventually asking for her hand in marriage. Bathsheba is fiercely independent does not think that she needs a man or husband but if she did it would have to be someone exceptional to reign her in. The pair soon have a twist of fate. Oak's sheep are lost in a freak accident then Bathsheba inherits her uncles farm and leaves the country side.

Ms. Everdene moves to Farm Robbin then quickly make changes. Mr. Oak arrives shortly thereafter.  The new mistress faces challenges from the existing staff and being the only female at market. She soon makes an impression on her new neighbour the respected William Boldwood (Michael Sheen) who falls for his new neighbour leading to her second marriage proposal. Her third was not too far away as British Solider Sargent Francis Troy (Tom Sturrige) swordsmanship and read coated attire turn her head.

The strongest part of the film is the writing. The dialogue between the characters is crisp and direct. The four main characters are well fleshed out and the supporting characters at the Robbin Farm have their distinct qualities. The other notable element is the cinematography. The landscape views are picturesque bringing the viewer directly into the region and the time period.

Bathsheba's strong side continues to shine at the farm.  She is willing to jump in and participate in any task that her staff do on the farm from washing the sheep to bringing in the harvest. Her three suitors circle around her orbit until she makes a decision on whom to wed. The change in her marital status brings a master into the home effecting the power structure of the farm.

Carey Mulligan turns in a solid performance as the main character in the production. She is strong in a male dominated world and industry being clear and resolute with her decisions. Mattais Schoenaerts continues a string of strong performances as Mr. Oak. At the outset he is a landowner then his fate turned to a worker but he maintains an even head and a good eye for character throughout the piece. Michael Steen is notable in a smaller role and could have done with more screen time in the film.  Look for Juno Temple in a meaty supporting role as Fanny Robbin opening with a chance to marry a solider at the start of the film but due to a mix-up ending up struggling to live day to day in the shadows.

Far from the Madding Crowd is a solid adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel. The piece is well written with the English countryside beautifully presented.  The main actor turn in sound performances. If you are a fan of Victorian Period pieces then the picture is worth a look.

*** Out of 4.

Far from the Madding Crowd | Thomas Vinterberg | U.K. / U.S.A. | 2015 | 119 Minutes.

Tags:  Thomas Hardy, Victorian Era , British Army,  Farms, Sheep, Harvest, Courting, Marriage.