Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman at TIFF Bell Lightbox

Robert Altman is a dir­ector I’ve always loved and respected. I loved that he dir­ected indus­trial films in his twen­ties, made tele­vi­sion in his thirties, and was well into his forties before he began making fea­ture films. He has also been described as quite a char­acter, prone to heavy drinking and strong opin­ions. He was always a mav­erick, and des­pite many crit­ical suc­cesses, he still found it a struggle to get many of his films made. I also love that he took many risks, dir­ecting films in many styles. He def­in­itely had a few flops (Popeye, not showing in this series) and films that I per­son­ally dis­liked (The Company, which will be screened), but all of that made him even more human, even as his oeuvre (all of it cre­ated in the latter half of his life) makes him larger than life. If you’re looking for some reading material about Altman’s life, I thor­oughly enjoyed Mitchell Zuckoff’s Altman: The Oral Biography (2010), and recom­mend it as a worthy com­panion volume to seeing the films in this series.

TIFF is bringing a wide-ranging ret­ro­spective of his work to the TIFF Bell Lightbox from August 7th-31st, and I’m excited to see some old favour­ites again, and to fill in a few gaps, too. Even better, kicking things off on Friday August 1st at 7pm is Altman, Toronto film­maker Ron Mann’s new doc­u­mentary on Altman’s life and work. Here are just a few highlights.

Still from M*A*S*H
M*A*S*H (1970)

It wasn’t his first fea­ture, but M*A*S*H def­in­itely announced Altman’s arrival and her­alded a new type of film­making that would come to be known as the “New Hollywood.” The tra­gi­comic lives of a group of bat­tle­field sur­geons during the Korean War came out while the war in Vietnam was in full swing, and its satire still stings today. M*A*S*H screens on Thursday August 7 at 6:30pm.

Still from McCabe and Mrs. Miller
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Described as a “revi­sionist Western,” McCabe and Mrs. Miller has been on my “blind spot” list for years. I’m so glad I finally got to see it on the big screen. I’ll be posting my thoughts on the film here very soon. McCabe and Mrs. Miller will screen with an intro­duc­tion from its cine­ma­to­grapher Vilmos Zsigmond on Friday August 8 at 6:15pm.

Still from Brewster McCloud
Brewster McCloud (1970)

This story of an eccentric young man (Bud Cort) who lives in the Houston Astrodome and who wants to fly like a bird has been dif­fi­cult to see over the years. I’m looking for­ward to catching it on 35mm. Brewster McCloud will screen on Sunday August 10 at 1:30pm.

Still from California Split
California Split (1974)

One of the only Altman films I’ve actu­ally written about before, this fea­tures two stal­warts of ‘70s cinema, Elliott Gould and George Segal as a couple of gambling bud­dies. It’s funny, but also darker than it first appears. Addiction’s pull is just below the sur­face of all the other antics. California Split screens on Thursday August 21 at 6:15pm.

There is much, much more, including screen­ings of The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975), The Player (1991), Short Cuts (1993), Gosford Park (2001), and his last film, A Prairie Home Companion (2006). More inform­a­tion on the series from the TIFF web site.

Tickets for all screen­ings are avail­able through the TIFF web site or at the box office. I’ve got mine already. See you there!

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Alfred & Jakobine

Alfred & Jakobine (Director: Jonathan Howells): After meeting and falling in love in Japan in 1955, American Alfred Hobbs and Danish artist Jakobine Schou impuls­ively mar­ried, with their mutu­ally adven­turous spirits taking them to Casablanca shortly there­after. Here, the new­ly­weds pur­chased a beat-up London taxi built in 1934 and spent the next four years driving it on an epic global road trip, where the couple’s pas­sion for each other never waned and their exploits brought them minor celebrity. When their journey was over, Alfred and Jakobine (pro­nounced “Yauk-o-beena”) set down roots in New York state. Not long after, Alfred unex­pec­tedly walked out on Jakobine, leaving her shattered. The couple recon­nected at a party a few years later, con­ceived a son, and Alfred soon exited Jakobine’s life once again. 40 years later, an 84-year-old Alfred con­fronting his mor­tality decides to fix up that same taxi, travel across America with the son he’s never really known, and sur­prise the woman whose heart he broke by offering her “one last ride,” as he describes it.

Director Jonathan Howells is the bene­factor of this rich source material and has pro­duced a reflective and moving film about the beauty and pain of love. The film­maker entwines the past and present with an effective bal­ance of first-person recol­lec­tions and visual aids (taken from the couple’s archives made up of 3,000 pho­to­graphs and numerous hours of their well-crafted 8mm and 16mm film footage), and the doc­u­menting of both the dif­fi­cult res­tor­a­tion pro­cess of the taxi and the 2,400 mile trip in September 2009 that Alfred and his son Niels took in it from Taos, New Mexico to Jakobine’s home in Oneida, New York. Adding to the intrigue encom­passing the modern-day trip are the dis­tant rela­tion­ship between Niels and Alfred, the arduous toll of the trek upon their del­icate vehicle, and the fact the unsus­pecting Jakobine (who appears to have never gotten over Alfred) has been hap­pily remar­ried for dec­ades to a like­able chap named Rusty, who actu­ally helped coordinate the reunion.

Alfred & Jakobine’s only real fault is that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the many fas­cin­ating layers of this story due to the all-too-brief 73-minute run­ning time (pre­sum­ably due to busi­ness con­sid­er­a­tions involving run­ning times for the­at­rical screen­ings and tele­vi­sion broad­cast, not cre­ative reasons). Specifically, Alfred’s mys­ter­ious reason for leaving Jakobine never feels explained to sat­is­fac­tion and the scenes involving the Taos-to-Oneida journey seem scant in com­par­ison to the four weeks it took to com­plete the trip. Additionally, the lack of stories involving Alfred and Jakobine’s adven­tures in the 50s is dis­ap­pointing. The film’s press kit ref­er­ences one story not included in the doc­u­mentary that found them “cap­tured by armed guer­rillas in (Africa’s) Atlas Mountains and…thrown into a desert prison, where they thought they would most cer­tainly die”. It’s a test­a­ment to Alfred & Jakobine’s core appeal, how­ever, that a com­pel­ling nar­rative such as this could end up excised from the final cut and the film still has plenty of pro­ver­bial meat on the bone. Hopefully, the documentary’s future DVD/Blu-ray release allows for a more in-depth present­a­tion. Brevity aside, Alfred & Jakobine proves to be a touching charmer.

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Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere

Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere (Director: Dave Jannetta): The ingredi­ents of Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere sound like they’ve been plucked from a Bruce Springsteen song or a David Lynch movie, as the film delves into the mys­ter­ious death of a loner in a remote American mid­west town (Chadron, Nebraska), the quirky per­son­al­ities who pop­u­late it, and the eccentric writer doc­u­menting it all. Director Dave Jannetta based his film on the 2013 book of the same name from author Poe Ballantine (real name Ed Hughes), a Chadron resident.

The core of the film is formed by the 2006 death of math­em­atics pro­fessor Steven Haataja, who dis­ap­peared a few months after taking a job at Chadron’s local col­lege. 95 days after last being seen, Haataja’s charred body was found tied to a tree on a nearby ranch and while the evid­ence seems to point to it being a hom­icide, too many unanswered ques­tions result in a case that remains unsolved to this day. The murder(?) mys­tery, made more com­pel­ling by some shoddy police work and spec­u­la­tions of sui­cide after rev­el­a­tions of Haataja’s his­tory of depres­sion come out, fuels the intrigue of the res­id­ents of the quiet town of 5,600. A number of them weigh in with their wide-ranging the­ories on the case and brief remem­brances of Haataja and it’s these inter­views that really elevate the quality of Love & Terror…. Jannetta strikes cine­matic gold here with one col­ourful inter­view sub­ject after another. One, a former detective who worked on the invest­ig­a­tion, sur­pris­ingly admits to being the case’s most likely sus­pect, while another dis­gust­ingly asserts that “If it had been a fucking foot­ball coach who dis­ap­peared, they would’ve called in the National Guard.” The third com­ponent of Love & Terror… comes from its sig­ni­ficant time spent with Ballantine, who spent six years researching the case for his book. The writer pos­sesses an idio­syn­cratic charm that fits right in with the documentary’s gal­lery of oddballs, and his philo­soph­ical pon­der­ings and recol­lec­tions from his life never fail to fas­cinate (like Haataja, Ballantine also struggled at times with severe depres­sion). Ballantine also acts as a sort of tour guide (albeit spec­u­lat­ively) through Haataja’s last moments alive, help­fully retra­cing the likely routes the pro­fessor would have had to take to his final destination.

Although its central focus is quite dark, Jannetta and Ballantine add a sur­pris­ingly light­hearted and humorous touch to Love & Terror…, which is unlike any other doc­u­mentary I’ve ever seen. The mix­ture of these two ele­ments may make some viewers uncom­fort­able (I was a little), but the end result is a thor­oughly enter­taining and engrossing film that never dis­respects Haataja’s memory (it should be noted that Haataja’s family declined to be inter­viewed for the film and was opposed to its making).

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Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger

Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger (Director: Joe Berlinger): Documentarian Joe Berlinger wasn’t kid­ding when he described his latest pro­ject as the most dense film he’d ever done during the pre-screening intro­duc­tion for Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger. Berlinger (best known for co-directing the Paradise Lost tri­logy and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) turns his camera this time to James “Whitey” Bulger, the Boston mob boss who ter­ror­ized the city during the 70s, 80s, and 90s with impunity from pro­sec­u­tion before going into hiding for 16 years until his 2011 cap­ture in California at the age of 81. For years, Bulger was second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list and he inspired Jack Nicholson’s vicious char­acter in Martin Scorsese’s 2006 movie The Departed. Whitey is a film that demands rapt atten­tion from its viewers, with an ava­lanche of inform­a­tion being dis­sem­in­ated amidst the com­plex twists and turns that the doc­u­mentary takes.

Bulger’s crimes, which included drug traf­ficking, extor­tion, rack­et­eering, loan-sharking, and murder, along with the 2013 trial for them, are the focal point of Whitey (curi­ously, his lengthy time on the lam and even­tual cap­ture are barely men­tioned). Bulger was implic­ated in 19 murders and ulti­mately found guilty of being involved in 11 killings, with a total con­vic­tion count of 31 that landed him two life sen­tences, plus five years. Berlinger was barred from inter­viewing Bulger, so snip­pets of a phone con­ver­sa­tion between the crim­inal and his lawyer are inter­spersed throughout the film, although they add little to the pro­ceed­ings. The doc­u­mentary is teeming with inter­views from retired cops and FBI agents, ex-wise guys, law­yers, reporters, and the South Boston vic­tims’ family mem­bers. The latter con­ver­sa­tions are par­tic­u­larly impactful, as Bulger’s acts of bru­tality take on added dimen­sion via the per­manent psy­cho­lo­gical toll evident on the faces of the people whose lives he des­troyed dec­ades ago. There’s also a sub­plot involving one of Bulger’s alleged extor­tion vic­tims, Stephen Rakes, that takes an espe­cially bizarre turn. Berlinger’s exam­in­a­tion of Bulger’s life and crimes inev­it­ably leads to Whitey taking on a wider scope that finds the film­maker also probing the cor­rup­tion that per­meated fed­eral and state law enforce­ment agen­cies during the dec­ades that Bulger oper­ated at the peak of his crim­inal power. Called into ques­tion is whether Bulger, who is cur­rently pre­paring an appeal of his con­vic­tion, acted as an informant for the FBI in exchange for immunity from his law-breaking, an asser­tion he firmly denies. The evid­ence sug­gests oth­er­wise and one of the film’s biggest ques­tions is just how com­plicit was the gov­ern­ment in allowing Bulger to carry out his litany of crimes?

Berlinger wisely adopts an impar­tial stance on his notorious sub­ject, res­ulting in a more com­pre­hensive and chal­len­ging film that cements his status as an unmatched pur­veyor of first-rate con­tem­porary true-crime doc­u­mentary film­making. The Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning dir­ector was recently in con­tact with Johnny Depp, who requested a copy of Whitey in pre­par­a­tion for his upcoming role as Bulger in next year’s Black Mass. Another drama on Bulger has also been in devel­op­ment by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for the past couple of years.

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Hot Docs Film Festival is in full swing and runs until May 4. Here is a quick run­down of some films that I have watched so far.

Rich Hill is a heart­breaking por­trait of three teenage boys that is beau­ti­fully crafted by Tracy Doz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo. Forget about the American dream. These kids live in a world that will be for­eign to most viewers and at the same time fas­cin­ating. I found it moving and recom­mend you get to one of the three screen­ings for this film.

What could be better than a film about some crazy old broads from NYC with eclectic fashion style, a love for life and more energy than the average teen­ager? Advanced Style fol­lows sev­eral women from Ari Seth Cohen’s pop­ular fashion blog and shows us how old age can be embraced des­pite its chal­lenges. This doc will put a smile on your face.

I wanted to like Self(less) Portrait but I never con­nected with the film. 50 people talk dir­ectly to the camera to share some of their most per­sonal exper­i­ences — sui­cide, abuse, love, bul­lying, etc. Most of the sub­jects are inter­esting but it feels like the film takes on too much making it dif­fi­cult to engage with any one of the portraits.

Penthouse North is an enga­ging por­trait of 62-year-old Agneta Eckemyr. The former Swedish model and fashion designer had it all — magazine covers, movie offers and celebrity cli­ents. Now she’s losing her pent­house apart­ment which over­looks Central Park and struggles to make ends meet. Johanna St Michaels cap­tures the entire train wreck with a few surprises.

If you watched Jane Campion’s award-winning tele­vi­sion show, Top Of The Lake then you won’t want to miss From the Bottom of the Lake by first time dir­ector Clare Young. She exam­ines the cre­ative pro­cess behind the show revealing how much time and energy goes into per­fecting a script before casting and shooting begins. From word choice to framing a scene, Campion sweats the small details and strives for perfection.

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