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Monthly Archives: July 2012

Originally Appearing on Dorkshelf

The TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Summer in France retrospective begins today, and with screenings running all the way till September 2nd, TIFF offers the most affordable trip to France that any Torontonian may ever get. Covering seminal and pioneering films from the Poetic Realism and French New Wave movements, the films featured in this retrospective are sure to excite, seduce, and puzzle viewers with the same cinematic brilliance in which they’ve managed to retain for the more than half century in which they’ve endured.

Featuring films from revered and iconic directors like Jean Luc-Godard, Francious Truffaut, Chris Marker, and many more, TIFF’s Summer in France is a comprehensive survey of the films that began as little ripples in a far away pond, but over many years have matured into galloping waves that have inspired and influenced filmmakers and cinema goers around the world. With a special presentation of Weekend by TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling on August 16th at 6:30pm, a special presentation of Rules of the Game by NOW Magazine film critic Norm Wilner, and a rare 70mm print screening of Jacques Tati’s classic Playtime, TIFF’s summer long retrospective will leave you asking “left bank, or right today?”

Le quai des brumes

Only fifteen minutes into Le quai des brumes and would be protagonist Jean (Jean Gabin) is already sitting in a dreary bar on the edge of town, drinking whisky and still wearing his army uniform. We meet Jean on a dark and lonely road, waving his hands before a lone truck driver in need of a ride into the port city of Le Havre. Even in the bar, Jean appears a mystery in this dreamy city of secrecy- we know nothing of who or what he runs from, why he’s come to Le Havre, and ultimately who he really is.

But this is Le quai des brumes greatest quality, as director Marcel Carné completely fixates the focus of the film on accentuating the details and small intricacies of its characters and it quickly becomes as if Carné, just like his tough guy protagonist Jean, truly leaves the idea of dialogue as a the formal mode of communication behind when he comes to Le Havre.

Jean soon meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan), a fragile young beauty of only 17 involved with many different men who each place suffocating claims on her glamor. Jean does all he can to get to know Nelly, but is often thwarted by Nelly’s creepy godfather Zable (Michel Simon) and a tough guy named Lucien (Pierre Brasseur); obstacles of Nelly’s questionable past. Inevitably Jean becomes entangled in all this mess, and eventually the time comes for Jean to decide if he will leave these problems behind in this seedy little port city where so many come to forget, or if there is in fact something worth staying for.

The finesse in Le quai des brumes really comes from Carné’s incredible command of atmosphere and superb eye for detail: the foggy and cobble stone lined streets of Le Havre serve as a perfect back drop for this place where our central characters dress in the costumes of their own confines. Jean continues to wear his uniform for quite some time and Nelly similarly remains wrapped in a translucent raincoat that, similarly to those who surround her, smothers and restricts her beauty. It is thought this that Carné shows us that even the simple matter of appearance can speak volumes about one’s past, no matter how guarded and shady it may me.

Most notably, it is Brasseur’s portrayal of Jean which endures as gleaming example of poetic realism’s quintessential tough guy, who is the first to tell you that “broads are all the same”. Released in 1938, Le quai des Brumes retains its authenticity as a classic and must see film of the genre.

Friday July 20th, 6:30 PM Lightbox

Elevator to the Gallows

With a trumpet laden soundtrack specially made by Jazz legend Miles Davis, Academy Award winning director Louis Malle’s 1958 production, Ascenseur pour L’echafaud or Elevator to the Gallows comes to us wrapped in sleek layer of a certain sexiness which no viewer can deny. From the very first shot, Malle’s smooth style is foregrounded as we see the glassy eyes of a woman, briefly highlighted only by a thin strip of bright light in a sea of darkness. This smooth and quick shot brightens only to place our focus squarely upon the face of this unknown and clearly distressed woman with her ear firmly pressed to a phone receiver. On the other end? We know not who this other character is either, but only that when he and the woman spit “Je t’aimes” back and forth between each other, its obvious that their romance is of the passionate kind, the burning kind,  just the kind that people would kill for.

This brilliant opening scene which I describe may take places quickly, but this is all that Malle needs to establish the level of sheer mastery in which Elevator to the Gallows continues to operate upon. Now living in a day and age when film noir is such a common, easily recognizable, and well imitated form of stylistic storytelling, watching even the opening scenes of Elevator to the Gallows is something like seeing the genre in its infancy.

The mystery man is the suave Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet), an ex-Foreign Legion parachutist whose penchant for danger is only rivaled by his will for survival. The single Tavernier and the canonical married dame with her ear and lips pressed to the phone, Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau), conspire to commit the perfect murder which will allow them to finally be together with Florence’s fat cat husband out of the way. When some unexpected setbacks put both Julien and Florence in danger, we find ourselves in the midst of an enthralling account Julien and Florence’s undying  will to be together wonderfully paralleled with the goofy yet similarly torrid love affair of two angsty teenage lovers with a coincidental affinity for danger.

Visually, Evelator to the Gallows has it all: a spectacular employment of light and dark shadows, a riveting story, and an ultra sultry soundtrack which adds even more to this film’s ambience. As Julien feels darkness close around him in the aphotic elevator shaft he becomes accidently locked in, it truly is hard for us not to feel a similar sense of hopeless entrapment. Still the most fascinating quality of Elevator to the Gallows resides chiefly in Moreau’s performance, as Malle’s  more realistic portrayal of the typically dolled up dame in this film is truly one of a kind.

Moreau, often shown without makeup cruising the dark streets of France in a desperate search for Julien, looks a mess near the end of her journey, and by doing this Malle adds a certain sense of authenticity to Elevator to the Gallows. It is this authenticity that allows for Elevator to the Gallows to retain its one of a kind quality more than half a century after its initial release.

 Sunday September 2, 3:30 PM Lightbox

Breathless

Socio-political filmmaker, writer, and critic Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature film Breathless is often heralded as one of the pioneering films of the French New wave- a term used to describe the emergence of French filmmakers in the 1950’s and 60’s whose works were inspired by the ‘everyday life’ representations of Italian Neorealism, as well as the tendencies of classical Hollywood cinema. If seeing the smooth talking, American slang using smart aleck Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo) weave through traffic in fast cut scenes all recorded on a hand held camera,  doesn’t echo ideas of ultra realism or Hollywood pastiche, hearing Michel’s first words that “I’m [he’s] a real son of a bitch” is sure to do the trick. With a fat cigarette constantly tucked into the corner of his thick, languid mouth and always sporting a crisp fedora, Breathless’ protagonist Michel immediately recalls the memory of a Hollywood icon like Humphry Bogart (which is who Michel precisely models himself after).

However, Godard’s personal homage to Bogart’s suave character becomes obvious all in the first few seconds of Breathless, and as we whip down the highway alongside the jumpy and easily excitable Michel only to soon witness Michel murder two cops who try to stop him for speeding (or driving in a stolen car), we see that although focused on portraying realism, Breathless still carries that certain sense of roughness and danger essential to the genre in which it pays its respects.

 Even in these early stages of Breathless, Michel’s playfully blunt tough guy exterior comes off like a hard boiled hero on speed; a highly accelerated version of the slow and suave finesse that the typically laconic characters we’ve seen foiled by femme fatales exhibit. In this, one can only guess at Godard’s absolute praise for these films, but as Breathless unravels into an enjoyable, and typically Godardian expose of intimacy (both verbal and sexual) between Michel and his hard to get love interest Patricia (Jean Seberg), it is obvious that Breathless  gives so much more than its simple design lets on.

Breathless takes us on a wild ride alongside Michel as he runs from the police, convinces the seemingly inconvincible Patricia to make love to him, and make hilariously brash comments like “women drivers are cowardice personified”. Even more impressive, the characters’ subtle allusions to American tropes like smoking “luckies” and Michel’s constant use of American slang makes Breathless operate as an instructional in the semiotics that dictate the both languages of the movies as well as love.

Quite possibly the coolest thing about Godard’s French New Wave motives in Breathless would be that harboring such gives us an ultra realistic look at a (campy albeit) noir film’s characters. Michel and Patricia carry out their dialogue with each other only to demonstrate an impeccable chemistry that is well imitated, yet seldom duplicated, and both actors ability to all out own their characters’ traits makes Breathless a fun, free flowing experiment in the genre. Now, more than half a century after Breathless’ initial release, watching Godard’s blithe reimagining of the classical Hollywood film captured through a realistic lens continues to secure Breathless’ status as the crowning gem of the French New Wave.

Thursday, August 9th, 6:30 PM Lightbox 

Belle de Jour

The opening sequence of Luis Buñuel’s 1967 saucy-surrealist drama Belle de Jour is prefaced by a very noticeable ‘Martin Scorsese Presents’ title. This title no doubt comes at the time of Belle de Jour’s rerelease, heralded by Hollywood heavyweight Scorsese’s efforts to reinvigorate and renew interest Buñuel’s French masterpiece of dream state drama, and all for very good reason.

 In Belle de Jour Buñuel adapts French journalist/ novelist Joseph Kessel’s 1928 novel of the same title, portraying the tense and rigid story of the gracious, delicate, and all around aristocratic Severine Serizy (Catherine Deneuve). Severine is the well off trophy wife of a young yet sexually uninterested doctor who spends long days at the hospital and whose only ambition for Severine is for her to bear him a child. Whether it is through fait or chance, Severine learns of a brothel run by a call girl impresario, who doubles as a prostitution guru of sorts for both Severine and the two other women who work there and it is here that Belle de Jour truly begins to walk on the wildside.

Another Brothel Worker in Belle de Jour

As if drawn by some insatiable, yet unexplainable urge, Severine slips further and further into the dark desires and kinky fantasies her customers require her to perform- both exciting her as well as awakening her long dormant sexual desires. Belle de Jour exists as a salient example of a truly timeless experience- as Kessel’s source material was delivered nearly forty years before Buñuel adapted Kessel’s ideas to the screen. Now, roughly a half century after its initial release, and a decade after Scorsese’s reissue, Belle de Jour continues to stand out amongst a cinema that has made its viewers very familiar with the fascinating, yet now routine, dalliances of a call girl (a cycle no doubt greatly popularized by Roy Schieder’s Academy award nominated prostitution- horror thriller Klute (1971) and still being carried out today with films like The Girlfriend Experience (2009)).

The sheer endurance of Belle de Jour can undoubtedly be accredited to Buñuel’s mastery of the surrealist drama, as his sly mixture of Severine’s dark masochistic dreams, rugged fantasies, and suppressed memories of sexual abuse blend and surprisingly sit flush with her everyday occurrences. Belle de Jour becomes a seductive puzzle enticing us to walk with Severine on her kinky journey, and while seeing Severine’s decadence degraded and dragged through the mud by her absolutely naughty behaviour is indeed exciting, Belle de Jour’s endures as more than just simple thrills.

When Severine becomes involved with a rough neck named Marcel (Pierre Clémenti), Severine appears as a moth uncontrollably drawn to a flame; and as walk along the thin line between fear and excitement Severine traverses, the sexual tension of the situation makes us unaware if we’ll make it out unscathed too.

Thursday, July 26th, 9:00 PM Lightbox

 I don’t really understand why Kreayshawn’s latest music video Summertime is labelled just as a “Pseudo VHS Video”. Posted on her you tube account, Krae may be speaking the truth, and Summertime may have been made to look like a creation straight out of late 80’s early nineties VHS days, but this still doesn’t take away from the truth of the viral WGM (White Girl Mob)leader’s latest music video experiment. Summertime opens with what appears to be a scratchy VHS tracking problems, and what ensues is odd- but certainly eye capturing. We see Krae cruising around in her ride, modeling her bruised and battered Chuck Taylors, and smiling under palm trees while a mystery person records each of her cutesy/ stoned-yet-graceful movements.

When Kraeyshawn first hopped on the scene in 2011 with Gucci Gucci (a fashion party anthem and a tribute to the then incarcerated V-Nasty all in one), many (however reluctant) couldn’t deny the ingenuity of Krae’s youthful creation.

Kreayshawn and Lil Debbie in Gucci Gucci (2011)

I was one of these people, who although hardly moved or even swerved by Kraeyshawn’s less than thought provoking lyrics, quickly realized that the heavily based sound and reefer smoking attitude of this girl who has “swag coming out my [her] ovaries” was indeed a promising and pleasurably futuristic example of the youth of hip hop currently taking place. I’m talking about young rappers (I’m talking teenage young) who via the powers  of the world wide web have been able to build their own empires and ensure their immortalization on the world’s largest database of FREE information.

With 36 million Youtube views, I certainly wasn’t the only person to be interested in Krae, and with that type of colossal exposure it’s fair to say that Kraeyshawn is definitely the leaving breathing example of the 21st century hip hop star: drawn and driven by the internet, continually trying to do something ‘different’ than the ‘main stream’, or who Kraey would probably like to call ‘basic bitches’.

Unfortunately after Gucci Gucci, Kraeyshawn fell off the radar for me, her videos and sounds failing to excite and present the same fresh, young, and grimy attitude that I saw in Gucci Gucci. However, not only does her throw back 90’s style in Summertimeinterest me, but I think the visuals and attitude Krae is going for with this single is a step, no a giant leap, in the right direction her career should have been headed.

The video really just showcases Krae wondering around L.A. , lighting blunts, and looking good, very good mind you, for the camera all while her lyrics are dubbed over the muted video track.
The abrupt blips between scenes, looped movements, and generally slowed down style of the video are not only groovy and atmospheric, but help to establish and set Krae’s art apart from everything else that’s going on in the busy hip hop universe of today. Yes, that’s right, I called Kraeyshawn’s work art, and that’s because for all intensive purposes the video for Summertime can’t be called anything else but an experimental video set to she and V-Nasty’s voice over. In an effort not to be disappointed, I’ll still set my bar low for this clearly still developmental artist, but hopefully this won’t be the last we’ll see of this 90’s influenced Krae.

Dark clouds seem to be forming over the hip hop community as two of the underground’s most promising young rappers appear to be feuding with each other- over Twitter that is. Spaceghostpurrp, founder and member of the Raider Klan, is a producer/ rapper from Florida whose reimagining of the southern Trill sound blends slowed down ultra basey beats( typically used by Promethazine sipping legends like the Three 6 Mafia), with everything from Midwestern stoner lyricists Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, then tops this all off with a little bit of N.W.A. (hear Purrps, ‘Don’t Give a Damn’ off of his soft more debut The Chronicles of Spaceghostpurrp for a taste of that). Some how this seemingly eclectic mix pumps delicious black ooze from your speakers, the results are at times hypnotic.

ASAP Rocky is a Harlem, New York rapper who comes from the up and coming ASAP Mob and whose sound has managed to simultaneously excite and awe hip hop fans of the early nineties who also grew up listening to Rocky’s central influences: the Harlem World Diplomats, Wu-Tang Clan, and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony. . Although the ASAP crew’s proclivity hasn’t really seemed to pick up yet, not to say that they aren’t trying as the mob’s ASAP Ant released ‘Told Ya’ in March. Granted the beat of ‘Told Ya’ is fire, but the song’s lack of focus and over all digressive and gradually unimpressive lyrics from Ant and featured artist Bodega Bamz fails to truly excite.

Meanwhile Purrp has managed to build a very impressive roster, featuring young (like teenage young) artists such as crack spitting The Ethelwulf, the wavy Xanex influenced Chris Travis, and the new princess of the Midwest miss Amber London. Although the Chronicles of Spaceghostpurrp was a less than impressive remastering of many of Purrps’ underground anthems (I was particularly disappointed by the toned down reworking of one of my favourite Purrp songs ‘Suck a Nigga Dick’), Purrp has shown us that his dark and meditative mind state could in fact be the very promising future for the direction of ‘underground hip hop’.

So what happened? Supposedly a member of the ASAP Mob (ASAP Twelvyy) got into an altercation with Matt Stoops who is a member of the Raider Klan. Even before this there has been much back and forth and speculation about the ASAP Mob’s relationship with the Raider Klan, and Spaceghostpurrp has at times made comments stating that both crews are all good, while at other times keeping their distance. Shots have been fired back and forth between both Purrp and Rocky over Twitter (you know rappers have entered the 21st century when…), and recently Rocky has come under fire for committing I guess what is considered a huge no-no in the ‘G on Twitter handbook’ by ‘Subtweeting’ at Purrp.

 

It seems that Purrp’s fan base has reacted quite strongly to this altercation, as there are many on his Twitter feed who pledging their allegiance to the Raiders and condemning Rocky for his ‘Subtweet’, while Rocky’s Twitter page shows little to know semblance of any fan mention of the matter.
I guess we have to remember that although very popular, both of these rappers are very young and while this plays a major component in perpetuating this beef, it could be the savoir. Purrp has been known to kiss and make up so to speak (he produced T.A.P. off of Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Allderdice mixtape, and I KNOW no one will forget Purrp’s underground banger off of Blackland Radio 666 ‘Fuck Taylor Gang’ in which he disses Wiz’s crew over some beef that has now been squashed). Let’s just hope all of this shit gets wrapped up so we can get back to hearing the Purrp’s beats with Rocky’s lyrics.

Tyler Perry’s latest familial dramedy Madea’s Witness Protection was my first foray into Perry’s strange world of entertainment, where multiple personalities and southern cooking seem to run rampant and are easily accepted.  Not typically drawn to every type of hype, when Perry started pumping out his now well marketed African American centric films in 2006 with Diary of A Mad Black Woman, I overlooked the slew of films that Perry would release in the years that followed, but rest assured, Witness Protection has provided me with everything I need to know about Perry’s wacky envisioning of the African American senior citizen.

Produced on a budget of 5.5$ million, Perry’sfirst feature film Diary was a sweeping success as it raked in $50.6 million in the domestic box office alone. More notably, Diary’s achievement as a low budgeted film capable of generating great profits caused Perry’s (who only wrote his first feature) narrative  style to become the new acceptable model for African American familial comedy films in the 21stCentury, apparently pleasing both studios and audiences alike. Unlike the steeper production budgets of $30 million plus that Eddie Murphy’s The Nutty Professor (1996), its sequel Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, or Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma’s House (2000) and Big Momma’s House 2 (2006), the more modest production values of Perry’s films and their gargantuan gains have hands down been one of the most dangerous things to happen to Afro American centric filmmaking in recent times.This is because this proclivity at low cost ushers in a time where studios (be they Lionsgate, BET, or Tyler Perry studios) have found the cheapest way to market images and ideas of African American’s to themselves and the general public, and for all those reasons, even Witness Protection’s cheap laughs can’t redeem this film or Perry’s indolent message.

Witness Protection starts off with the Needleman family:  wealthy, white, upper class Atlantians led by the goofy yet honorable George Needleman (Eugene Levy) and his younger counterpart Kate (Denise Richards). After being unknowingly implicated in a Ponzi scheme, Needleman finds himself at the mercy of the F.B.I. and is relocated to live with reoccurring Perry universe character Brian’s aunt Madea (both Brian and Madea are played by Perry). Witness Protection operates like clockwork and these and all of the other obstacles the Needleman’s face pretty obvious in about the first 15 minutes of the film. George can’t spend enough time with his kids because of his work, Kate misses their intimacy, their daughter Cindy (Danielle Campbell) needs some attitude adjustments and their son Howie (Devan Leos) needs some serious father son time.

While many other films could take some hints from Witness Protection’s forwardness, Prometheus ahem, the film’s quick story line seems cheap and lazy. Now don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t foolish enough to walk into this film thinking that it would be the Tree of Life of Afro American centric familial dramas, but it is very hard to ignore how unbecoming both Perry’s dialogue and attention to plot is. With straight faced dialogue that simply slides back and forth between characters, and staple introductory and establishing shots (Perry frequently shown sitting at his desk just in case we ever forget that he works for the District Attorney), it shocking that Witness Protection clocks in as the fourth of Perry’s films which was not adapted from a stage play. This is surprising because everything in this film, particularly its dead pan plot direction and visuals, seem like something that could only be adapted from a less cinematic source.

Perry has come under fire from many including self appointed African American culture aficionado Spike Lee for his ‘coon’ and ‘mammy’ character portrayals. Here Lee refers to centuries old African American stereotypes made popular on during the silent film era, and which are thought to have become relics of a time of oppression and false representation. However, Perry’s Witness Protectiongoes to show that these representations aren’t gone- but in fact have been re-appropriated in one of the most risky and subversive manners. Being fed to and supported by the demographic who continue to make Perry’s films a success, African Americans, Witness Protection silently reinvigorates and reinforces stereotypes under the guise of African American friendly comedy made by an African American.

Still, Witness Protection provides some simple but hardy laughs. Hearing Madea and her husband Joe (Tyler Perry) talk about Kate’s ‘yoda’ (yoga) or watching Madea’s Joe interact with the cute and snuggly Needleman Grandmother Barbra (Doris Roberts) who insists that they shacked up together during WWII, is indeed entertaining. But all this still couldn’t detract from the strong point that Perry seems to hope that audiences (Afro Centric or not) have forgotten about: Isn’t Murphy in Nutty Professor I and II dressed up as multiple African American characters who bring outsiders into their homes? Is Big Momma’s Housenot exclusively about Martin Lawrence dressing himself up like an old lady to protect a witness to a crime?  Haven’t we seen this all before?

Well the biggest and difference between those films and Perry’s comedies is that Murphy and Lawrence are both comedians, and Perry is not. While The Nutty Professor and Big Momma’s House both arguably cater to African American audiences and feature men made up as old ladies and fat men alike- both of these films draw their humour from Murphy or Lawrence essentially playing themselves in a fat suit disguise. Perry’s Witness Protection however presents Madea not as a funny version of Perry-but a self contained character all in her own. Madea’s humour comes from the ridiculousness of her character- rather than the absurdity of Perry pretending to be here. Everything that Madea does is for money: she won’t let the Needleman’s stay at her house until she is payed, she even helps them commit a crime for a nice hotel suite. With this as Madea’s central source of motivation, an impossibly frustrating question looms over this entire film: are we watching Perry playing Madea or Perry acting the ‘Mammy’ ? 

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