Reviews from the Vault: Vol. 2 (Atlantic Film Festival Edition)

Between 2005 and 2009 I was a programmer on CKDU 88.1 FM every Sunday morning with something called The Love & Hate Movie Show. I talked about what I was seeing and revisited some of my favourite films of old, pretty much what I do now here on FITI. I still have a lot of the scripts from those days, and thought I should share them here for archival reasons (and just for fun). As the blog’s fifth birthday approaches, what better time than now to take a look back at my (slightly edited) words originally written for broadcast.

The Atlantic Film Festival recently revealed its full program for this year’s festival. It’s opening night film is Hyena Road, Paul Gross’ first feature as a writer-director since Passchendaele, a picture that provoked in this reviewer a powerfully ambiguous reaction. Let’s start with that, before I get into older reviews of movies I saw some years back at the AFF.

(And, speaking of the annual festival, let’s go look at that new AFF program schedule! Let’s go see a few interesting and challenging movies in September!)

Passchendaele (2008)


Paul Gross on Monday told a full house at The Oxford, where the film had its Halifax premiere, that the $20 million epic was inspired by stories his grandfather told to him about his battles in World War I. Gross even named his character after his grandfather, Michael Dunne. In case you didn’t know, Gross wrote, directed, produced and starred in this very old-fashioned drama about the cost of war.

We’ve seen the war movie done and done well. I’m thinking of Saving Private Ryan and Days of Glory and Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima. Passchendaele is more retro than any of those, offering up the kind of sentiment we haven’t seen since the 40s and 50s, where the heroic lead had to resort a little barbarism to survive his first tour of duty, finds himself back in small town Alberta, beset by nightmares of all the bad things he’s done. It should be noted, he and most of the other townsfolk sure don’t speak like it’s 90 years ago. There are plenty of 21st century-isms rolling out of these mouths.

Anyway, back in Alberta, Dunne takes a shine to local nurse named Sarah Mann and looks out for her little brother. The brother wants to sign up but he has asthma, so he can’t. To make matters worse, the elder Mann was “A Dirty Kraut,” so Sarah and her brother are ostracized by the community, especially the nasty neighbours, the Harpers. (I loved that they’re named Harper, though Gross claims there was no political intent in the name. )

The little brother, Sarah and Dunne all wind up back in the muddy hell hole of the front, in Belgium, where at a place called Passchendaele, a lot of Canadians died trying to beat the Germans. They did initially, only to lose the ground they’d won a short time later.

To this point, we’ve had the maudlin sentimentality, we’ve had a herky, jerky script, and we’ve had Gil Bellows seriously miscast in a ridiculous fatsuit. All of which I could take, because I can see that Gross’ heart is in the right place.  When a guy wants to do justice to his grandfather’s memory, and make his own, full length Heritage Moment, a little shlock is forgivable.

Then, in the final 20 minutes, Michael Dunne becomes a combination of The Terminator and Elias from Platoon, and does the unbelievable, giving his character a moment of individual heroism that goes beyond implausible and right into the ridiculous. It reeks of star vanity, and it makes everything that went before, the even-handed war-is-hell, war-is-mundane, there’s-no-romance-here speeches, which I liked, seem empty and hackneyed. It’s compounded by a sex-in-the rain scene, and an inevitable, laughable death scene. That’s when the forgivably sentimental turned into the truly dire.

But I must admit, the assembled crowd, many of them our local men and women in uniform, gave Gross a standing ovation when he came down for the Q&A. It’s possible I missed the point of this film entirely, or maybe it just wasn’t for me.

Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2006)


Scott Walker is the American singer who found fame in the UK in the ’60s with The Walker Brothers (“The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”) and went on to become a cult figure in the 70s, making tremulous, soulful melancholia on record that inspired Pulp, Radiohead, and David Bowie, who produced this doc. More recently, Scott Walker has become a big name in the avant garde, his music absolutely hypnotic and occasionally frightening soundscapes that impress the hell out of people like Brian Eno. The film takes time playing his songs, presumably introducing them to an audience that may not be familiar with Walker’s stuff. Some of the visuals the filmmakers drum up along with it aren’t all that special, but what the doc does that really works is have admirers, everyone from Bowie, to Lulu, to Ute Lemper, listening to the records and commenting on things that they love in the music. Walker himself is clearly shy and reluctant to be the centre of attention, unlikely to play live again and never listens to his records once they are released. But for music lovers of all stripes, this is a film worth seeing and Walker is someone worth discovering.

Control (2007)


Control is the story of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, a much loved band whose stature and influence has far outlasted its rise to fame from the Manchester post-punk scene. Adapted from the book written by Curtis’s wife Deborah, it details the band’s beginnings and Curtis’ fall into depression, the collapse of his marriage and his struggles with epilepsy. An unknown, Sam Riley, plays Curtis, and he a startling presence in the role, as is Samantha Morton as Debbie. Directed by Anton Corbijn, the famed rock photographer who helped create those sepia-toned images for U2 (circa The Joshua Tree) and Depeche Mode during the heroin years, he brings that kind of grit to the look of the picture, creating a really vivid sense of time and place. What is missing is any sense of why we should care about Ian, or any historical context on the impact of the music he made.

In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007)

2-InTheShadowOfTheMoon Poster

The shoulders of those astronauts we meet In The Shadow Of The Moon are certainly broad. It makes you wonder if NASA thought of how they’d play as American heroes after the fact when they were chosen to be part of one of the six (!) missions to the moon between 1968 and 1972. Much of the footage I was familiar with, though I did learn a great deal more about the characters of those men in a very, very exclusive club. These guys are more than your typical flyboys, they’re articulate and interesting. I guess they’ve had years to perfect their stories, but they seem nothing but honest. The picture serves as a great reminder of what we as a species have accomplished that is unimpeachably good. We’ve sent men to the moon, and we did it almost 40 years ago, when the computers were less sophisticated than our iPods. If I had a criticism of the film it’s that I would have like to have heard a bit more about the science and the math that got those guys up there and home in one piece. But the movie concerns itself with the experience of the astronauts, their stories. It’s surprisingly moving, hearing them try to describe the infinite they experienced.

Starting Out In The Evening (2007)


I’ve said last week that my favourite film of the 27th Annual AFF was Fugitive Pieces. It now has some serious competition. Starting Out in the Evening is a wonderful New York drama from director Andrew Wagner, based on the novel by Brian Morton. It stars veteran character actor Frank Langella in what must be his best role to date. He was Dracula in the late ’70s,  the first version of the vampire I ever saw, and I guess that’s what he’ll always be in my head. Here he is Leonard Schiller, a literary writer whose four novels are out of print, but he keeps on pursuing the craft, “the madness of art.” He has a close relationship with his daughter, Ariel, played by Lili Taylor but otherwise leads a fairly secluded life, until a precocious masters student named Heather, played by Lauren Ambrose (Clare from Six Feet Under) approaches him. She’s doing her thesis on his work. Meanwhile, Ariel has her own issues around a relationship with an old boyfriend that starts up again. She wants to have a child and he doesn’t, which is what broke them up the first time.

A more thoughtful and heartfelt story of a writer’s life I haven’t seen in ages, and the performances are wonderful. A couple of times I thought it might cheap out, get maudlin or obvious, but it never takes a wrong turn.

I knew I was in for a stellar drama when in an early scene, Leonard and Heather meet in Leonard’s amazing, book-filled apartment. Just before leaving, trying to convince him to let her interview him, Heather kisses his hands, he drops her coat, and he puts a large hand over her eyes. It’s one of those shockingly real, unpredictable moments of inscrutable intimacy made tangible by a talented filmmaker and performers. It’s called Starting Out in the Evening, see it when it opens in theatres (which, with some luck or award attention, it will).

Eastern Promises (2007)


Viggo Mortensen is a thug in the Russian Mafia in London, an up-and-comer and friend of the prince, the son of the big boss. Naomi Watts is a midwife, she gets the diary of a dead girl, who has just left a newborn at Naomi’s character’s hospital. And her character has Russian connections in her blood, too.

This is an excellent, powerful genre piece from David Cronenberg. Stronger than A History of Violence, in some respects, by being more definitive. There is some grim violence. Tonally, its not a far cry from Scorcese’s The Departed, but it has that patented Cronenberg unsettled quality. Great locations, very much the underbelly of London.

The movie on the whole rests on Viggo’s shoulders. The motivation behind his character is what gives the picture its slippery suspense.

One of the best movies of the year so far and a great launch of the fall movie season.

Shake Hands With The Devil (2007)


This was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who did the solid Under Fire 25 years ago, a great political thriller in this genre. By now, most know the story of Romeo Dallaire from his book and documentary of the same name. So how necessary is this film? Not terribly.

It does tell the story in serious strokes, the supporting performances are good, and a great use of the original locations: they shot on site in Rwanda. And Roy Dupius is good as the peacekeeper who sees things that gives him nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unfortunately, the scenes after Rwanda in the Ottawa psychiatrists office, actually shot here at Dalhousie, didn’t really work for me. I wanted to see more of that, see the bleakness of Ottawa in the winter, have a sense of place here in Canada that the film doesn’t give us.  And the script could have given us a little more of a character study.  So, a well-meaning and serious film, but not great. And I think it does suffer somewhat, not because it comes out after Hotel Rwanda or Shooting Dogs or any of those, but because it follows the book and the documentary and brings little that we didn’t already know.

One Week (2008)


This is a really sweet Canadian film, one that manages to develop and maintain its tone throughout, starring Joshua Jackson as a young man on the verge of getting married (to the always solid Lianne Balaban) when he discovers he has terminal cancer. This sends him on a cross-Canada voyage astride a classic Norton motorcycle.

Narrated by the dry, warm tones of Campbell Scott, the film is mostly a light, funny ride, robustly Canadian, featuring cultural signposts that all Canucks will recognize, not to mention stellar cameos from Gord Downie, Emm Gryner and Joel Plaskett, and a very fine Canrock soundtrack. This movie is going to give people a big hug when it gets released in theatres. Go and feel the bittersweet warmth.

Zack & Miri Make a Porno (2008)


This is the new Kevin Smith movie, and it’s one of the funniest and most outrageous comedies I’ve seen all year. I’ve always liked that Smith, especially as a screenwriter. After Clerks 2 I wasn’t sure he could get more outrageous, or funnier, but he has.

Probably not for the easily offended, but anyone who can handle a healthy collection of gags about anal sex may enjoy it. The high school reunion is probably the highlight. I suspect it to be the frankest mainstream comedy I’ve ever seen, in terms of its open discussion of sex. Underneath, of course, it has a mushiness typical of Smith’s movies, and certainly steers toward romcom cliche in the final act.

Wendy & Lucy (2008)


Starring a luminous Michelle Williams, for whom a short, dark bob really works, it’s hard to believe she isn’t in her late teens. She does a certain kind of innocence very well. The American indie picture, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is a gritty little heartstring plucker, a story of a girl travelling from the Midwest to Alaska who gets stuck in Oregon somewhere, makes a few bad choices and has some bad luck, then loses her dog.

It has that grit that all movies shot in the Pacific Northwest seem to be rubbed in, typical of Gus Van Sant’s more indie wortk. When I finished watching the film, I was thrilled to see the sun had come out. My own dog deserves a good run.

Down To The Dirt (2008)


A few points about this film:

1) The writer of the novel (Joel Thomas Hynes) plays his lead character in the film. And he does it well. It makes you wanna punch the son of a bitch, that kind of switch-hitting talent.

2) We got some filmmaking grit goin’ on here in Atlantic Canada, boy.

3) Hugh Dillon? He does menace like he was born with needles in his eyes.

4) A little gallows humour is very effective in moments of piteous misery.

The Objective (2008)


The late-arriving follow-up to The Blair Witch Project from that picture’s co-director, Daniel Myrick. The basic structure is very much the same: A group of people go out into the wilderness and encounter a horror they don’t understand. Only, in this case, it’s a group of Special Ops soldiers in Afghanistan in November 2001, led by a CIA operative with a secret (you got it) objective. So far, so cool. The digital video allows for a docudrama-grit, and the soldiers are hard-boiled and handy with the props, giving the picture a bit of an Aliens vibe.

And wouldn’t you know it, things start to get weird. Is the thing supernatural? Is it extraterrestrial? Is it all an allegory for the mistakes of aggressive American foreign policy? Well, I won’t spoil it for you, because I can’t really tell you. The ending made no sense to me, so more power to you if you can figure it out.

Stone of Destiny (2008)


Apparently based on a true story of a group of University of Glasgow students in the early ’50s who conspired to steal the titular rock, which sits beneath the Coronation chair, the seat the king or queen enjoys when he or she is monarched. The chair is in Westminster Abbey, in London. Not easily gotten to, but back in 1950, the surveillance was hardly where it is today, and these mightily earnest and nationalistic types would not be denied. It’s to fluffy it could blow away, but nice support from Robert Carlyle and interesting choice of the New Pornographers on the soundtrack. I always think of those guys when I think of Scotland in the ’50s.

Choke (2008)


Choke is a charming, foul-mouthed little comedy starring Sam Rockwell as a lifelong skeeze, scammer and sex addict, who probably can lay the blame on much of his bad behavior with his mother, Angelica Huston, who is wildly delusional and in a care facility. There he meets a doctor, the no-longer-Scots-sounding Kelly MacDonald. Some of the best scenes in the picture, adapted from the Chuck Palahniuk novel, come when Rockwell’s Victor is working at a Pioneer Village where he’s obliged to stay in period throughout, but can’t quite manage it. Directed and adapted by David Mamet regular Clark Gregg, who plays a supporting role in the film, it has none of the visual delight of that other Palahniuk adaptation, Fight Club, but the script is jammed full of the author’s typical dark humour and social fascination.

Waltz With Bashir (2008)


Waltz With Bashir is not for someone expecting an animated picture to provide gentle escapism. The film actually deals in how the mind enforces a certain escape when the memories are too difficult to metabolize. Here it’s the guilt that a number of Israeli men, all of whom participated in the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, find in themselves, their own memories fragmented. As the filmmaker’s animated proxy starts to dig into his own past, with the help of stories told by his former comrades, he finds the truth about his marginal participation in a massacre that took place at a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. The film is gorgeous to look at and helps illustrate the shifting possibilities of memory, but when it counts, it brings a shocking realism, boiling away the animated veil to show actual footage of the horror. Intense, and in the end, very sad.

Of All The Things (2008)


I can say, without fear of contradiction, that this doc about a former AM radio songwriter and hitmaker who finds a career resurgence in the Philippines is a must see. Not only is Dennis Lambert a real charmer on camera, there’s plenty of drama and plenty at stake as he plays his songs live, many for the first time. He feels as though he needs to take ownership of his own legacy, and damn straight he should, given the mountain of hit songs he wrote in the ’60s and ’70s. No one, no matter your age, is going to see this charming doc and not recognize a few of the tunes.

Man On Wire (2008)


Scored by a combination of Michael Nyman’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover soundtrack and Eric Satie, Man On Wire is utterly hypnotizing. Paced like a caper film, it visits with the daredevil Frenchman who in 1974, with the assistance of a team of accomplices, strung a wire between the Twin Towers in Manhattan and strolled across. I remembered the fact of it, but knew nothing of how it was done. Now that I’ve seen the film, the enormity of the accomplishment, there’s a poetry to doing something with grace that no one in their right mind would do. I love the interview with the cop who went up there to try and bring the wire-walker down. He knew he was seeing something that was “once in a lifetime.” I hope this gets a local release in theatres. The vertigo induced by those towers is really something on the big screen.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)


This documentary is a fine epitaph for the writer and journalist, collecting footage from many of the docs that have already dug deeply into his life, such as Breakfast With Hunter. Most interesting is how his work impacted Washington, and how he was affected by politicians such as George McGovern and Jimmy Carter. The film also doesn’t soft-pedal his anger, nor how he was trapped by fame later in life, both embracing and reviling the cartoon of his image. As Jimmy Buffet (!?) says in the picture, we miss him. It would have been nice to hear what he might have made of this bizarre American election cycle. And as Gonzo points out, the rhetoric and circumstances of 1972 strangely correlate with the current crap spewing from our television screens.

Blindness (2008)


Blindness brings a dark, powerful drama. Fernando Meirelles, who directed City of God and The Constant Gardener, has recut the film again since it screened at TIFF, though since this is my first time seeing it, I can’t say what’s been changed. It was shot in Guelph, Ontario, and Sao Paulo, Brazil (a weird combo). The apocalyptic drama follows a group of nameless characters who all contract a virus that causes blindness, all but one woman, played by Julianne Moore, who pretends to be blind to stay with her husband, the doctor, Mark Ruffalo. The international co-pro features a pile of recognizable Canadian character actors, such as the excellent Don McKellar, also here on screenplay duties, the regularly creepy Maury Chaykin, and Soulpepper Theatre co-founder Susan Coyne, who co-created Slings & Arrows.

Summerhood (2008)


This is a shot-in Nova Scotia summer camp picture. I was on set in 2005 and did a story for The Coast, which you can find online if you’d like. I can’t remember when I last enjoyed a basically plotless movie as much as I did this one. It’s a totally kid-centric perspective on summer camp in the 1980s in Nova Scotia, specifically Camp Kadimah, a Jewish summer camp. The director (and supporting actor) Jacob Medjuck went to the camp when he was a kid and wound up shooting on the location that inspired the story. When does that ever happen?

They must have blown most of their budget on the music, exploding with great, retro ‘80s classics. And they rescue Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” from the nasty, disco-killing fate it was saddled with in Boogie Nights. Good for them. The rest of the money they must have used to pay John Cusack for his uncredited narration, which is perfect. (Apparently Cusack refused to have his name used in any of the promo stuff. Weird.)

My hat is off, especially to the kids in the movie. What an awesome cast of talented youngsters, who pretty much carry the whole thing themselves. I wasn’t entirely sure what the girls making out fantasy sequence in the camp kitchen was in aid of, but it’s otherwise adorable. I hope people get to see it.

I’d go so far as to say it can be counted amongst great summer kids/camp movies The Sandlot, Meatballs and Stand By Me.

Visioneers (2008)


The picture is shot in basically two locations, not including interior car shots, a two-scene visit to a restaurant, and, in the finale, on a boat. It does not escape the look of its shoestring budget.

Starring Zach Galifianakis as George Washington Winsterhammerman, who works in a gray room as a “tunt,” a middle manager in the all-powerful Jeffers corporation, whose salute is a middle finger raised. Society is beset by an epidemic of people exploding, and he’s afraid of it happening to him. He has the symptoms— gorging on food, dreaming, no sex drive—his wife, played by the awesome Judy Greer, reads books and watches DVDs on how to be happy. Then his brother shows up—James Le Gros, who should be working more often than he is—dressed like a ’70s track star, and proceeds to pole vault in the backyard, drawing the attention of a commune of hippies. Oh, and everyone pronounces chaos, “chay-os.”

An absurd, comedic revisiting of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and every welcome-to-the-machine, Orwellian, corporate dystopia you might ever think of, from Metropolis to THX1138 to Joe Versus The Volcano, I can’t say I got much out of it. A few laughs, especially in the beginning, but I felt the ideas couldn’t sustain the running time. Still, It’s a very weird little movie, and we don’t see enough of those.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.