April 6, 2012. The Dispassionate Eye. Movies Reviewed: Images Festival, Strawberry Tree, The Pettifogger PLUS Bully v. Fightville

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies, for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

…I’m back again with some movie reviews. As I’ve said, springtime is film festival time. You can catch the Toronto Film Society’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” weekend at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto starting on May 11th, for a chance to see B&W film noir and other classics from the 1940’s, like Suspicion, The Big Sleep, The Glass Key and Double Indemnity.

And starting this Wednesday is the unique and amazing Images Media Arts Festival. Images is North America’s biggest festival of art-driven film and videos, including live performances, gallery installations, and, of course, movies. It’s their 25th anniversary, so you can see new and innovative work, as well as work shown their first year, way back in the 80’s. The Festival opens with John Akomfrah’s The Nine Muses, and closes with a live performance by Yo La Tenga.

The Strawberry Tree

Dir: Simone Rapisarda Casanova

This film is filled with mundane but lovely composed views of life in a small, Cuban fishing village. Scenes range from repairing fishing nets, and fish teeming underwater, and the slaughter of a goat in real time, to a woman peeling plantains, or  a man performing card tricks at a kids’ party.

The director’s camera is an unmoving, dispassionate observer set up on the floor, usually at a distance from the people he’s filming. But the posture of an artist’s indifference is challenged and exposed by the constant patter of the film’s subjects: sexual banter, casual insults, joking stories and comments often involving the artist by name. They talk about his jewelry, make fun of his accent, his attitude, his looks, his wealth, and the way they think his life must like in Canada. And they talk about the film itself and how it distorts – positively or negatively — the way it makes them look.

The calm beauty of the film is balanced with the knowledge (from the very first frame) that everything we see was later wiped away by a hurricane that flattened the village after the film was made.

This is a gorgeous and often funny impression of small town life in Cuba.

To get in the mood for the festival, on Wednesday, the day before Images begins, there’s an amazing free screening of:

The Pettifogger

Dir: Lewis Klahr

This is kind of an art-film, kind of a mood-narrative, about an early sixties gambler. It’s filled with noir-ish newspaper comics, film stills, and found objects like buttons, poker chips, and plastic sword-shaped toothpicks. Everything leads back to hardboiled tough guys — men who wear hats — and their femmes fatales. Using cut-out style animation, Klahr manipulates the collage images across the screen in jerky jumps.

So suspicious comic-strip detectives can be seen peeking through the glassine windows of manila envelopes. Two jacks from a  poker deck do an angry, sullen standoff before skulking off screen again. And everywhere are the bright, coloured icons of that Man’s World: cigarettes, mickeys of scotch, license plates, greenbacks, with hearts and spades, all floating around on the screen. The “bars” of the one armed bandits detach themselves and become coloured bars blocking or censoring the stories he tells… and in the background, sounds of traffic, thunderstorms and ever-suspicious dialogue from radio potboilers.

Check out The Strawberry Tree and Pettifogger at Images, all starting next week.

Last week, I left this studio and saw, a stone’s throw away at Queen’s Park, a protest against bullying. That’s nice, I thought, They’re against teenaged bullying. Until I got closer — it was a pro-bullying demonstration! A what? That’s like a protest against puppies! Apparently, fundamentalist, right wing religious groups object to the new anti-bullying law because it involves teaching about sexuality in public high schools, and calls for allowing “gay-straight alliance” support groups to be started in government-funded schools — in order to help many of the kids who are being driven to suicide by this very bullying. It seems there are people who want to keep bullying just as it is now…

Which brings me  two documentaries opening this weekend, Bully (dir: Lee Hirsch), which is getting a lot of attention, and Fightville (dir: Petra Epperlein, Michael Tucker), both of which I saw at last year’s HotDocs.

Bully is about bullying, Fightville is about Mixed Martial Arts.

So which is the better documentary?

It’s hard to admit, but Fightville is just a much better doc. Although it’s much more commercial in its style, its characters are more interesting, it’s camera work more pleasing, the storyline (two young fighters trying to become pros vs. five high school students who get bullied) more engaging and dynamic. The problem is Bully, which follows five bullied kids around for a year, has the feeling of a fundraiser, a charity infomercial  (the sort of thing you find yourself watching on cable TV at 5 am on a Sunday morning.) It’s bland and it’s slow and it’s a little bit boring. It doesn’t really offer many solutions. And I was left with the impression that the filmmaker intentionally tried to make one poor kid, Alex, (who has a slightly “unusual”-looking face from certain angles), look odder than he really was. Which in my mind is “movie bullying”.

Does this mean bullying (as an issue) is less important than a bloody, competitive sport? Of course not! It’s just that Fightville is a better film than Bully. I often talk about movies with “good taste” versus movies that “taste good”.  But it looks like I’ve been neglecting a third category. Bully is “good for you”. Like brussels sprouts.

Opening this weekend are Lovers in a Dangerous Time, a low budget, pretty, romantic Canadian drama; Pettifogger and the Strawberry Tree (go to Imagesfestival.com) and the docs Fightville and Bully.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site CulturalMining.com.

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