Movies

SXSW Film Review: California Dreams, Mike Ott, 2017

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Movies, Reviews, South By Southwest | Leave a comment

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Life is perhaps at its cruelest and clearest when aspiration and reality collides (and reality wins). If that’s true, then California Dreams is both. Having watched the film, however, I cannot differentiate it from reality TV, pure screenplay, or a bastard child of the two. Interestingly, director Mike Ott was being intentionally ambiguous. From a naive perspective, California Dreams plays on the quintessential Hollywood rag-to-riches trope. Many people in the Inland Empire look to LA and dream of becoming successful actors or actresses, even if their lives circle in the gutters from meal to deal to meal. Ott begins with Cory Zacharia, a 28 year old layabout with no skills. And I do mean ZERO. Comically illiterate, innumerate, and struggles even to form a sentence for a Taco Bell resume, he nonetheless believes that he can make it big. If only a decent audition tape (oh and also $900) could just “occur to him”, he could join a German friend in Berlin. This friend had worked tirelessly to arrange for Cory a role in a big budget film. Everything is falling into place, ready for his arrival. We are also informed that Cory share this dream with a 6-flags attendant from the Philippines, a wannabe alpha-male bounty hunter, a screenwriter in the Church of the latter day Taco Bell, and a down-and-out old lady.

Blurring the lines between fiction and reality seems to be Ott’s modus operandi. Dreams’ structure is eerily similar to Pearblossom Hwy, his 2012 film starring the same hapless Cory. Zacharia was supposedly discovered by Ott in a Home Depot parking lot. The set piece elements here have been lifted from an universe so blatantly child-like and outlandish, that I nearly mistook it for a tribute to Wes Anderson. For example, the whole motley crew in Dreams all live in the same tidy roadside motel. They all seems to get on with their lives despite hardships. And everything works out in the end: Cory eventually found the cash he badly needs when it literally fell from the sky, blown into a straight-line like offerings from the dried branches along the path of his favorite highway trot. All this skepticism aside, it is worth noting that the cinematography is quite breathtaking. If you have ever been to the Californian desert, you might agree that it’s nowhere near as mystical and forgiving as Dreams depicts. Cinematographer Mike Gioulakis made it LOOK like like a well-spring of dreams. Ott made an effort to convince us that these are not actors. By speaking on camera to Cory, he is in reality trying to break the 4th wall. We are supposed to believe that these are real people whose dreams are exactly as told through their audition for this film: they are simply acting out their own lives. Actors, playing themselves.

I am still not sure how to feel about the power structure behind this film. Is this exploitation? Or perhaps any talk of exploitation is irrelevant because Ott is fulfilling these dreams? I am indifferent to whether this is staged, transcribed from real-life then reenacted, or reality TV with impeccable-fortuitous camera placements. Even though many of the nesting references and breadcrumbs are too trite and tiresome to follow, it still contains honest and interesting messages. What I’m actually annoyed with, is the same way you would notice that I stopped mentioning any of the other characters. That’s because none received any development or mention at all after they were introduced. Completely superfluous and expendable, they were living and dreaming furniture, no more important to Cory’s dream than the chair he sat in while enjoying a lap dance. It certainly took a step back from the plural title – I was fully expecting an expose on 2+ dreams. With ambiguity comes ambivalence, I guess. I am about as likely to recommend this as I would a box of cereal at afternoon tea: you won’t feel deprived without (just biscuits and scones thank you very much), and you won’t read too much into it if you do. It’s just, there, being it’s own meta-self.

SXSW Film Review: Disgraced, Pat Kondelis, 2017

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Movies, Reviews, South By Southwest | Leave a comment

 

First, a bit of venue overview. Alamo Ritz wins the prize for the “most alternative” fillers of any theater I’ve attended. No black screens of boredom here before your show. There were 70s French art house music videos with people bowing as if playing violins on body parts; a band called Telegenics singing about dominatrix; cat videos; bollywood music videos full of transforming smart phones, belly-dancing men in tiger costumes, and of course large group dancing. Just before the show starts, Bobby the Giant Child from Food of the Gods II reminds would-be texting viewers that if they violate that sacred trust, they need to “get the fuck outta my room!”

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I feel obligated to start with a buoyant tone, because nothing about this film is light. Disgraced opens when Patrick Dennehy, a star player of the Baylor university basketball team, went missing in 2003. A few days after the police was informed, a full canvas and investigation began. But the deeper they delved, the less clear the case became. The local police forces and the FBI slowly pieced together a trail that revealed how his friend and roommate had gunned him down in a grassy field, without any motive whatsoever. But this story only gets more bizarre. In his zeal to win a basketball championship, it appears that the head coach Dave Bliss had made deals with players that breached NCAA code of conduct. Somehow, Bliss’ involvement was intricately linked to the murder. The details were not just suspicious. It was serious enough that Bliss applied pressure to turn his players into accomplices. They wanted to besmirch the dead in order to save Bliss from an NCAA investigation. If that’s not a case worthy of Sherlock Holmes, I don’t know what is.

In real life, detectives don’t have an all-powerful Mycroft at their beck and call. Even though this tragedy garnered national attention back then, it was never resolved on a level that would be satisfactory to anyone. Yet since the issues were local to Texas, once the national optics turned elsewhere and the news cycle faded, these influences came into the fore. Prominent among these local interests is Baylor University itself, which saw the murder case and the associated issues with the basketball program as a scandal, and sought to sweep things under the rug. If not for just one wrinkle, we would not have this documentary – Patrick’s roommate was found to be mentally-ill, confessed and was sentenced; Bliss resigned; everything seemed settled.

However, Bliss’ assistant coach recorded him scheming. On tape.

Those tapes, the fallout, and what truth they obscured, are in fact the whole point of Disgraced. The cinematography and reenactments are clearly well-produced. But these elements serve to set the desired context, in order that the audience can appreciate the recordings. It permitted Bliss, who was interviewed comprehensively, an ostensible chance to defend himself. In the Q&A after the screening, the Austin-based filmmaker Pat Kondelis suggested that in the early days while arranging the interview, Bliss led him to believe that a type of confession would be forthcoming. These exchanges and discussions, even now, are still tinged with a very local and emotional element. There were support for either side: I spied a few Baylor supporters who left in disgust right after the screening, and there’s certainly no doubt where Kondelis stands. One might be turned off by this type of potential bias. But it still doesn’t detract from the compelling and damning evidence. What this documentary mimics is a traveling courtroom. And each audience as jury, I expect, experiences that cast-the-first-stone moment: the sheer gall of the officials and Bliss in constructing the lie; their insistence that the victim “deserved his fate”; the destruction these memories and lingering questions wrought on Dennehy’s family. The audience booed each bold face lie, jeered at Bliss’ amateurish denial, and shed tears with the parents. It’s a remote yet strangely participatory film. 14 years since that time, Baylor University is again in the spotlight with a new scandal, this time regarding sexual assault. Though it may take a first-class mind to wade through the minutiae of evidence, it takes only a first-grade one to see that denial is no longer working. Although as the film seeks to remind us, Bliss IS still working as a basketball coach. Now, that is something to think about.

Film Review: The Winding Stream (2014, Beth Harrington)

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs, Movies | Leave a comment

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The Winding Stream is a charming and informative look into the lives and careers of The Carter Family, from their humble origins to the great influence that they continue to have in the world of folk and country music. Their influence is made clear from the number of musicians interviewed for this doc, with the likes of Joe Ely, Jim Lauderdale, Murray Hammond, Mike Seeger, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Jeff Hanna of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band all offering up some words on the band’s history and significance. As Ely puts it, “People should know who they are just like they should know who the first president of the United States is.”

While the full title of the film is The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music, the film focuses mostly on the Carters. Not that the Cash family doesn’t play an important part – Roseanne and John Carter Cash as well as Johnny himself are featured in interviews throughout and one of the more memorable moments was watching Johnny speak sweetly about the first time he met and fell for June Carter – but this is largely the Carter Family’s story. And it is quite the story. Through interviews and some archival footage, their story unfolds – their first recording sessions, their rise to fame, and the effect it had on their lives (A.P. and Sara Carter eventually divorced). The film also touches on A.P. Carter’s savvy and somewhat opportunistic idea to travel around collecting old songs, which he would then pass off as his own for the sake of collecting royalties. Looking back at it now, it seems a little shady, though as Roseanne Cash points out, these songs would have faded into obscurity had he not done so.

The Winding Stream is a compelling look at one of the most important, influential groups in the history of country music and well worth watching for both the novice and the hardcore Carter Family fans.

The Winding Stream will be showing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until April 14.

Film Review: (Dis)Honesty—The Truth About Lies [Yael Melamede, 2015]

Posted on by Thierry Cote in Movies, Reviews | Leave a comment

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Have you lied today? This month? This year? Why did you do it? Does this make you a bad person? These questions—and many others—are at the heart of (Dis)Honesty—The Truth About Lies, an enjoyable feature-length documentary directed by Yael Melamede and produced as part of The (Dis)Honesty Project, a partnership between Salty Features and best-selling author Dan Ariely. Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University and head of Duke’s Center for Advanced Hindsight, specializes in researching human behaviour and challenging the notion that people almost always behave in a perfectly rational way; here, he sets his sights on trying to understand the motivations for lying, cheating (in sports and relationships) and other dishonest actions that go against conventional moral codes (including insider trading and other financial wrongdoings) in order to curb such behaviours.

Melamede gives Ariely and his collaborators plenty of space to discuss their research, experiments and findings as well as to explain key concepts, such as what Ariely calls the “fudge factor”—the ability to rationalize bad behaviour or lies. Ariely is a compelling and often humorous speaker, both when he talks about his personal journey (including how a childhood accident inspired his interest in irrationality) and in extensive excerpts from a presentation on the topic of dishonesty. The movie alternates between these excerpts, footage of experiments and several confessional talking-head interviews that are occasionally enhanced by surprisingly whimsical animations. It is in these interviews that we meet individuals who form a body of anecdotal evidence that, as Ariely puts it, lying “is not about being bad—it’s about being human”: Joe Papp, a professional cyclist who was caught doping; the creator of a deceitful guerrilla marketing campaign for I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell; Marilee Jones, the former Dean of Admissions at M.I.T. who had to resign for lying about her academic credentials; Kelley Williams-Bolar, a mother of two who lied about where she lived to enrol her children in a better school; Garrett Bauer, who is serving a 9-year sentence for insider trading; Tim Donaghy, the disgraced NBA referee who eventually went to prison for his role in an organized crime gambling circle; and many others.

At times, the long presentation clips and emphasis on anecdotal evidence make (Dis)Honesty feel a bit like an extended TED Talk (Ariely is a prolific TED Speaker whose TED Talks have accrued over 11 million views) or a visually enhanced episode of This American Life. Nevertheless, the movie is never less than thoroughly engaging, thanks to a fascinating subject matter and a breezy 90-minute running time. While (Dis)Honesty only skims the surface of the vast field of behavioural economics, it offers a window into Ariely and the Centre for Advanced Hindsight’s captivating research and astute insight into the human mind—plenty enough to compel filmgoers wishing to dig deeper to pick up one of Ariely’s many books on the subject, and perhaps to think twice that next time they find themselves on the cusp of telling a little white lie.

 

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