Thursday, May 11, 2023

Seen in April 

Leonard Cohen is your man.

April showers bring May flowers, and also a perfect opportunity to see a matinee in a darkened movie theatre. This month I saw as many films at the Hot Docs film festival as I did from the couch. Seeing films at a film festival is great not just for the movies but for the community of filmgoers and for having the opportunity to talk to the filmmakers. On the other hand, you have to leave the couch. Here is what I saw from both a theatre seat and a couch.

Party Down S03
No one asked for this. No one needed it. Yet, here it is. This little sit-com about a group of aspiring actors and writers working as servers for a small catering company aired its first two seasons over a decade ago before a third season unexpectedly marked its return. The beauty of this show was how cheaply and simply made it was, with such a universal premise. Many people take uninspiring work such as a service jobs to make ends meet while waiting for something better to materialize. The surprising thing of this show when I first saw it, almost 10 years after it was cancelled, was the talent that were either part of the regular cast or made special appearances. Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Jane Lynch, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally, Jennifer Garner, Zão Chao, J.K. Simmons, Ken Jeong, Kristen Bell, Michael Hitchcock and James Marsden all had either regular appearances, multi-episode parts or cameos. You may not recognize the names but their faces have been in everything. It's such a scruffy, funny little gem, where an entire season is filmed over just a few weeks, it's amazing it even exists at all.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, better than you'd think.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
Before Marvel commodified the funny sci-fi-action-adventure-drama formula, only rarely would films fit that description. Lately though it feels like Marvel's formula is a flailing attempt to deliver anything coherent at all and has seemed, at times, more like self-parody. At the same time, DC comics have also missed the mark trying to match Marvel’s success. Thus it was that many of us thought that self-referential comedy-action-adventure films had come to their timely end. Enter Chris Pine leading in an unexpectedly good and enjoyable action-adventure-comedy-drama set within the fantasy world of a Dungeons and Dragons quest. For the uninitiated, Dungeons and Dragons is role-playing game wherein the players assume roles as diverse as wizards, dwarves, warriors and elves in a quest created by the Dungeon Master with possibilities determined by the roll of a many-sided die and the general guidelines of the gameplay. Together the Dungeon Master and players create a story that they play within, thus no two "campaigns" (or games, played out over many hours) are the same. D&D seemed to outsiders more like a cult and its popularity in the 80s led to the facetious "Satanic Panic" where parents thought their children were part of some satanic worship rather than just a fantasy role-play game. As the game itself evolved to digital versions, its overall rules and style of play essentially formed the DNA of every role based video game that followed, which is now a multi-billion dollar industry. The repetitive task fulfilment of a D&D yet endless possibilities lends itself to a franchise film series as long as you can find the right cast to anchor the stories. Enter Chris Pine…

Leonard Cohen pursuing peace on Mount Baldy.

Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song
You may have heard there was a secret chord that David played that pleased the Lord, but what you may not have heard is that Leonard Cohen penned over 150 different verses of that song and seemed to continuously be rewriting it for years. Cohen was an iconic and prolific songwriter yet this one song both exemplifies his workman like approach to his art as well as a strange parallel tale of his career. So many covers of the song have been performed that even many of the artists who record it seem unsure of its origins or it's original lyrics. That is definitely the hallmark of a great song. The film Inside Llewyn Davis has a quote, "If it was never new, and never gets old, then it's a folk song.", which seems fitting for Hallelujah too. With ever new cover, it gains new fans who never knew other versions. This documentary is probably the most insightful film you'll see about Cohen but it too feels like a cover. If it seems familiar that may be because of the archival interviews or clips you've seen elsewhere, but don't worry, it's the real deal and may have you seeking out some undiscovered part of Cohen's catalogue.

Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoying his glory in Pumping Iron

Pumping Iron
This documentary film from the 1970s followed the world's most famous bodybuilder, Austrian born Arnold Schwarzenegger, and led to a bodybuilding and gym membership craze that only paused during the 2020 pandemic. While the film catapulted Schwarzenegger into Hollywood stardom and even a stint as California governor, it doesn't really reflect well on him. He's clearly arrogant, conceded, narcissistic, sexist, insanely competitive and juvenile, which saying it now, makes him a perfect candidate for governor. The film also highlight's Schwarzenegger's tactics with competitor, Lou Ferrigno, who also went on to an acting career as television's Incredible Hulk and later, became active in conservative politics. It seems natural that people who push themselves to extreme lengths through hours of hard work somehow see America as the ultimate meritocracy and align to conservative, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps philosophies. It should be said, an underrated star of this film is Ferrigno's father and coach who urges his son on like a Rocky-style, New Jersey boxing coach.

Ten Percent S01
Amazon Prime
This is the British version of Call My Agent, set in a talent agency in London where one of the principals of the firm has his life turned upside down when his father passes away, leaving the company with massive debt open to being taken over by an American firm and when his adult daughter from an affair 23 years ago shows up on his doorstep. I watched a couple of episodes of the original but I have to say I prefer this dry and very British version instead.

Charles is not my king, but Viola Davis may be.

Woman King
In 19th century west Africa, warring tribes and kingdoms grew wealthy by selling the prisoners of their conquests to European slave traders. One kingdom, Dahomey had a famously fierce contingent of "Amazon warriors", the Agojie made up of women fighters. Despite its smaller size this kingdom thrived with the help of these female fighters. Viola Davis plays General Nanisca who wields her influence to persuade the king, Jon Boyega, to give up trade with the slavers and focus on other exports for wealth and repel the Europeans taking their African brothers, sisters and children across the sea. The film focusses on Nanisca's determination to change her kingdom's trade and recreates the city, the palace, and the Dahomey Amazons that are part of an overlooked history.

Hot Docs
This documentary focusses on the demolition of Bangkok's last independent cinema. The Scala was a grand theatre in its day but as times changed it faced competition from multi-plexes and streaming content. We watch mostly in silence as the building is being taken apart and salvaged for parts like the seats and chandeliers. We discover through narration, the filmmaker grew up living in the theatre along with her family and some of the men dismantling equipment worked there for over 40 years.

Goodbye Words
Hot Docs
A short documentary where we watch old books removed from shelves, broken down bit by bit, mulched and used as insulation in the walls of houses.

How the Wooden Structures Survived in My Mind
Hot Docs
An eery and poetic short documentary of filmed abandoned wooden structures in rural France.

Hot Docs
A documentary from Canadian filmmaker Rama Rau, on what it means to be a modern witch and to study and learn Wiccan practices in a contemporary setting. We meet three young witches who see their practice as inherently feminist and as a connection to a nature in a way that organized religions (often controlled by men) never have. We follow these women as they explore not just the history of Wicca but their own heritage and connection to their past and the persecution of witches in history.

The Blake
Hot Docs
A documentary short about the connections between the Challenger space shuttle disaster, a local grade school project that converted an old bus into a model of the Space Shuttle and the young boy with a congenital heart condition that named the space shuttle model bus.

Ken August Meyer stares down his mortality in this affecting film.

Angel Applicant
Hot Docs
A man with a rare auto immune disease discovers that famed Expressionist painter Paul Klee, who died in 1940, had the same condition and learns to interpret Klee’s work as lessons for himself as he confronts his own illness, creativity and humanity.

The Long Distance Swimmer
Hot Docs
In 2015, two sisters, Sara and Yusra Mardini escaped the Syrian war as many refugees had, by boat. On the last leg of their trip, the motor of the dinghy they were in failed. The two sisters, who were competitive swimmers, jumped into the water and pulled the dinghy and the 18 other refugees for three hours to reach the shores of the Greek island Lesvos. Once safely relocated to Germany, Yusra continued her studies and training, but Sara joined the humanitarian NGO Sea-Rescue and worked as a volunteer rescuing refugees from drowning at sea. It was this humanitarian work that led to a slew of absurd charges against Sara and at least 100 other volunteers from the Greek government. The charges ranged from being part of an organized crime syndicate, to fraud and money laundering. All of this was initiated to discourage other volunteers from saving refugees at sea. It is almost an immoral act that Greek authorities did all they could to criminalize humanitarian aid. The film focusses not only on Sara Mardini's ongoing humanitarian work but also her mental health as she and others wait in limbo for a trial date which is continually being delayed.

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