a Healthy Disdain


During last week’s discussion of Attack the Block, Matty asked what he missed while he was cowering in fear of the film’s admittedly impressive, largely practically-realized aliens. Evidently, it was the fact that Attack the Block is the best summer flick of 2011, easily outdoing both X-Men First Class, and, yes Adam, even Super 8.

Not only does Joe Cornish deliver more fun than both of those films combined, he does so while offering the kinds of social insights that First Class, in particular, wastefully avoids. Despite its civil rights-era setting, and the inherent allegory of mutants as marginalized citizens, First Class has nothing interesting to say about race or gender politics, and even falls back on tried and true clichés  (expendable black characters, scantily-clad women). Attack the Block, in contrast, cleverly explores the demonization of Britain’s urban youth – a subject that is particularly poignant in light of recent events.

Cornish, however, is careful not to glamorize gang violence, and this contributes to one of Adam’s issues with the film – its teenage fatalities. I do concede that these are slightly overshadowed during the film’s otherwise terrific climactic sequence, but feel they ultimately strengthen the film. Cornish is to be applauded both for his willingness to provide such initially reprehensible protagonists, and for his decision to teach those protagonists some appropriately harsh lessons in the course of their redemption.

The kids’ initial nastiness and the unexpected deaths are part of what make Attack the Block so much more satisfying than a typical Hollywood blockbuster, seemingly calibrated for maximum sterility. This is also true of the wonderfully innovative creature effects, and of the dialogue, which is remarkably accurate to the snap-crackle banter of urban London slang. For me, it’s this freshness, as well as the film’s super-tight screenplay, that take it above Super 8, as enjoyable as Abrams’ effort may be.

As for John Boyega, it’s possible that, given the accent, Matty didn’t hear what he was saying, but, either way, he’s completely wrong. Boyega is very good, as are all the kids – Alex Esmail as “Pest” most notably.

I realize that, by and large, you were both positive on the film, but felt compelled to write in because Filmspotting has a proud pedigree of backing lesser-known films, and Attack the Block certainly deserves the support. Convincing folks to see modestly-budgeted indie films can be like pulling teeth, but Attack the Block is massively entertaining, and a genuine crowd-pleaser. Were I on the Golden Brick panel, it would be a shoo-in for a year-end nomination.

This letter was originally written as a response to Filmspotting episode #358. There was no feedback segment this week – I fear because too few listeners have seen the film in order to offer opinions – but I didn’t want these sentiments to go to waste. I’m still trying to find time for a full review. Also, to be clear, Filmspotting is awesome.




Exit Through the Gift Shop
Far and away the most fascinating of 2010’s crop of high-profile “prankumentaries” – and one of the year’s best in any genre – many critics found Exit Through the Gift Shop, from iconically anonymous street artist Banksy, literally too good to be true. A shockingly entertaining blend of humour, insight, coincidence and subversion, it’s been commonly suggested that, like Joaquin Phoenix hoax I’m Still Here, Gift Shop was an elaborate con, playfully but purposefully crafted to expose the absurdities of the commercial art scene.

After half a dozen viewings, I remain a believer, and if the film’s Best Documentary nomination is any indication, so does the Academy. That said, I appreciate the skepticism. Banksy, after all, is a professional trickster, renowned for audacious feats of artistic disobedience, and it’s prudent to approach with caution. Suspicion is also a fair response to the shadowy artist’s bait-and-switch introduction: Claiming to have turned the tables on his would-be documentarian (“he was actually a lot more interesting than I am”), Banksy surrenders the spotlight to a personality as comically improbable as any Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego.

That man is Thierry Guetta, a bumbling, lushly-mutonchopped, cartoonishly French L.A. expat, who, after arriving as a boy in the early 80s, became a surprisingly successful entrepreneur, importing second-hand streetwear at a tidy markup. Conveniently, Guetta also cultivated a near-clinical obsession with his video camera, capturing thousands of hours of candid footage of himself and his family, which, more conveniently still, happens to include one of street art’s original leading lights. Gift Shop, in turn, is the extraordinary story of what transpired when Guetta gained access to street art’s other prominent pioneers, and was allowed to train his obsessive gaze on their agitprop underworld.

Acting both as a videographer and an ever-willing accomplice, Guetta facilitated his new idols in their midnight raids, recording priceless footage of countercultural ephemera inherently at odds with commercial valuation. By 2006 he’d established a reputation as a veteran street art sidekick, and was at last introduced to Banksy himself, the only major player to have eluded his lens. It was as an accessory to the artist’s Guantanamo-themed Disneyland installation that Guetta would decisively prove his worth, stashing incriminating tapes and withstanding a four-hour interrogation from irony-averse authorities. Banksy adds that he was able to escape the park thanks partly to Guetta’s detention, and that thereafter he trusted the tight-lipped Frenchman completely.

Indeed, Exit Through the Gift Shop originated as Life Remote Control, a film Guetta cut together at Banksy’s behest. Concerned by street art’s sudden, lucrative cachet among private collectors – for which he was significantly, if inadvertently, responsible – Banksy asked Guetta to assemble his footage in the hope of publicizing the movement’s egalitarian, anti-establishment foundations. When Banksy was shown the torturously inept final product, however, that hope was replaced by concern for Guetta’s sanity. It was at this point that Banksy claims to have taken the filmmaking reins, and to have casually suggested that Guetta occupy himself by producing some art of his own.

The ensuing role reversal is astonishing (imagine F for Fake meets Face/Off), and must be seen to be believed – or disbelieved, as the case may be. This third act turnabout is the crux of Gift Shop conspiracy theories, such is its success in revealing the willingness of both the general public and alleged connoisseurs to embrace even the most vapid pop culture regurgitations, provided they’re heralded with sufficient hype. For skeptics, it’s difficult to believe that Banksy merely documented, rather than deliberately engineered, a sequence of events so ripe for satire.

Again, I accept Gift Shop as essentially genuine, but would only be more impressed if Banksy had premeditated such an intricate farce. On that understanding, he’s not only provided an account of the origins of a vibrant guerilla art form, which simultaneously lampoons efforts to commercialize that art form, but has done the former whilst duping the commercial art world into lampooning itself. Apart from its general sardonic brilliance, what makes Gift Shop so remarkable is that, whatever manipulations it might be peddling, as a cultural indictment it remains very much valid.

(This content originally published via Next Projection, August 8, 2011)


TIFF Neorealism

On now through August 28, Days of Glory continues TIFF’s efforts to redefine the summertime cinema-going experience. A sidebar companion to Spectacular Obsessions, the series celebrates the masterworks of Italian neorealism, offering welcome respite from summer’s mindlessly bombastic blockbuster fare. The postwar movement gave rise to some of cinema’s absolute essentials, often eschewing escapism for powerful tales of working class woe. TIFF’s tribute is duly comprehensive, featuring 23 classics and rarities, as well as an in-person discussion with accomplished Italian film scholar, and Queen’s Media Professor, Frank Burke.

Speaking recently from his summer home in Tuscany, Burke offered an encyclopedic account of neorealism’s origins, scope, and legacy, and his appearance, prior to a screening of Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (August 5, 6:30pm), is not to be missed. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Il Posto itself is a time-honoured triumph. Though it arrived more than a decade after neorealism’s late 40s heyday, Olmi’s bittersweet coming-of-age tale still rings charmingly, awkwardly, and masterfully true.

TIFF Neorealism

That authenticity, along with the film’s concern with an ordinary young office worker, is emblematic of what Burke cited as neorealism’s radical attempt to “minimize the manipulation of cinema.” Employing real locations, non-professional actors, and confronting harsh postwar economic realities, the movement represented a clear-eyed rejection of the fascist fantasies of the Mussolini era.

Among Burke’s picks for those looking to the Lightbox for a neorealism crash course are two of Roberto Rossellini’s famed War Trilogy — Rome, Open City (August 10, 6:45pm) and Pasian (July 29, 6:30pm). Both shot in the immediate aftermath of German occupation, against actual, bombed-out urban and rural backdrops, Burke identifies the pair as the original standard-bearers of the neorealist movement. Open City is a cat and mouse chronicle of a resistance leader’s bid to escape Gestapo clutches, and is, without exaggeration, one of the most influential films of all time. Paisan, scarcely less seminal, is a six-episode story of Italy’s liberation, co-written by TIFF’s man of the moment, Federico Fellini.

TIFF Neorealism

Third on Burke’s list was opening selection Bicylcle Thieves. Thanks in part to the availability of high quality prints, Burke explained that Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 release has supplanted Rossellini’s films as neorealism’s most iconic, though Bicycle Thieves certainly remains a masterpiece in its own right. The story of a father robbed of the tool he requires to earn a modest livelihood, it’s a simple scenario with the gravest of stakes, and continues to resonate with audiences and filmmakers 63 years on.

In addition to Bicycle Thieves, Burke recommended Giuseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice (August 10, 9pm) as a particularly accessible selection for those new to neorealism. Despite its director’s ardent left-wing leanings, this seductive, Oscar-nominated crime drama is one of the few films in the program to exhibit overt Hollywood influence, and brims with sensuality, suspense, and heavy elements of film noir.

TIFF Neorealism

As for my personal picks, fans of contemporary indie auteur Kelly Reichardt will feel instantly familiar with De Sica’s moving paternal tribute, Umberto D. (August 1, 6:30pm). A stubborn but downtrodden and disenfranchised pensioner, the eponymous Umberto, with faithful pooch in tow, is evidently the great granddaddy of Reichardt’s heartbreaking Wendy and Lucy. Alienated, in debt, and facing eviction, his dire financial straights threaten to deprive him of even his beloved canine companion.

For purists, Luchino Visconti’s La Terrra Trema (August 21, 4:30pm) is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of true neorealist form and content, with it’s nonprofessional cast and class exploitation narrative. Shot in a seaside fishing village in eastern Sicily, the film was initially funded by the Italian Communist Party, and features a raw, detailed evocation of the townsfolk’s daily struggles, both physical and economic.

Lastly, Mamma Roma (August 22, 6:30pm), from Pier Paolo Pasolini (of Salò infamy) is a tragic tale of twisted motherly affection, prefiguring 2009’s much-loved Mother from Bong Joon-ho. Anna Magnani is sensational as the titular Mamma, an endearingly outrageous ex-prostitute with a fearsome determination to forge a better life for her formerly estranged, misfit son. Considered by many to be the director’s best, it’s no wonder this singular work was the sensation of TIFF’s Pasolini retrospective last year.

For a complete list of films and show times, visit Tiff.net. All screenings at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets are available online, by phone: 416-599-TIFF, or in person: TIFF Bell Lightbox, Reitman Square, 350 King Street West.

(This content originally published via BlogTO, July 29, 2011)


Not to beat up on Hot Tub Time Machine, but it’s difficult to peruse this week’s “Now Playing” listings without experiencing the vague sensation that your intelligence is being insulted.  In truth, that’s nothing new, and as with most weeks, if you’re willing to ignore the marketing blitz for whatever 3-D Hollywood hack job that happens to be premiering, there’s usually at least one film to be found that’s genuinely worth your while.

This week, that film is Mother, the latest in a trio of thrillers that affirm writer/director Bong Joon-ho as one of the hottest talents in world cinema.  Like his North American breakout, The Host, and South Korean sensation, Memories of Murder Mother is yet another demonstration of Bong’s unique aptitude for marrying horror, hilarity, and genuine pathos.

Bong also appears to revel in subverting audience expectations, and does so, in Mother, by casting 68-year-old Kim Hye-ja in the title role.  Beloved in her home country as a matronly TV mom, Bong transforms Kim into an irrepressible manifestation of maternal fervor, more ruthless – yet more real – than Tarantino’s Bride.  Hers is a roaring rampage for justice when her mentally challenged, grown-up son is conned by police into confessing to the murder of a local school girl.  The audaciously unpredictable plotting is typical of Bong, but it’s Kim’s bravura performance that truly needs to be seen to be believed.  Mother is currently playing on select screens across North America, including at the Cumberland in Toronto, so catch it while you’ve got the chance.

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