High School Communisto
Now in post-production following a 34-day shoot that kicked off in August and ended in October, Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky takes the teen comedy in an unusual direction. Classics like Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1989) and Allan Moyle’s Pump Up the Volume (1990) depict rebels battling oppressive adult authority, but never before has there been a 17-year-old film hero who delves into leftist history and decides that he is the reincarnation of a mythic Russian revolutionary.
Imbued by the spirit of Leon Trotsky, Leon Bronstein (played by Jay Baruchel using Trotsky’s real name), pisses off his father by convincing the wealthy businessman's workers to go on strike. Dad retaliates by banishing Leon to a public school, where the burgeoning radical resolves to transform the student union into a real union. The student group "organizes dances, he wants to organize rights," says the film’s producer, Tierney's father Kevin.
Like the original Trotsky, Leon turns away from the values from his prosperous family, hooks up with Comrade Lenin (played by Jacob Tierney, an actor since childhood), falls for an older woman called Alexandra, and so on. Jacob Tierney has worked this story for ten years, gradually shifting it away from straight drama when he began to see the comic potential of a 21st century suburban kid with a jones for a Bolshevik from a distant era.
On a warm mid-October day, the picture's crew was shooting a late-in-the-movie scene between Leon and his father (veteran Saul Rubinek). The riverside location in suburban Laval felt relaxed although the $6.4 million production, involving 35 principal roles and 1000 extras is no cakewalk, especially for a 29-year-old directing his followup to his debut feature after, 2004’s Dickens update Twist.
Answering a reporter’s question about the film’s title and premise, Tierney Sr. (pictured at left) made it clear that moviegoers will not require his son's sophisticated understanding of Communist history to get the picture. "If you know who Trotsky is, there’s another functioning level of humour," but if you think Trotsky might be a type of borscht, no problem. For the producer, "The word is funny, and the main character is funny. He’s a particular kind of guy who leaves behind the ordinary."
The Trotsky's cast, which along with Baruchel and Rubinek, includes Geneviève Bujold, Domini Blythe, Anne-Marie Cadieux, Colm Feore, Emily Hampshire, and Michael Murphy. Baruchel, raised in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, evolved from appearances on locally produced TV shows like Popular Mechanics for Kids and The Worst Witch into major roles in Tropic Thunder, Knocked Up, Million Dollar Baby, Almost Famous, and the Canadian comedy, Just Buried.
Over an on-set deli lunch, the young actor, who refuses to re-locate to L.A. and still lives in N.D.G., talked about his own high school experiences at two institutions. In the first, an establishment with a rep for tough guy shenanigans, "I was in the nerd clique. They called us United Nations because my group was a Mexican, a black kid, an Iraqi, and me." Eventually, Baruchel "went from carrying a knife on me every day, and the cops being there, to going to a fine arts school where I became the Alpha male." What kind of blade, I had to know. A shiv? A machete? "It was a Swiss army knife," laughed Baruchel. "I would fold it out in my pocket as I was talking to people. I would have it ready."
In Kevin Tierney's dream scenario, The Trotsky will open the Toronto International Film Festival in 2009, and launch in theatres the next day. Not of Charlie Kaufman's School of dramatic art, he says that he "wants to make films about people who win, not people who lose. I know that people die, I know that people have accidents, but I want audiences to feel good when they walk out of my films." Tierney certainly made a lot of people feel good with his 2006 record crowd-pleaser, Bon Cop Bad Cop. Along with The Trotsky, his productions Serveuses demandées and Love and Savagery will be released during the coming year.
Getting personal, I asked Tierney if shooting a movie with Jacob triggered familial conflicts mirroring the ones in his son's script. "Of course, there are tensions," he said, "but this is the first time I really love my director."
A License to Stare
The 37th Festival du Nouveau Cinema wrapped as one of the most successful editions in its long history. Even before the final numbers were in, the FNC announced that over 100,000 people attended packed screenings and participated in events like British filmmaker John Boorman’s master class. Still active at 75, the director of movies ranging from Deliverance (1972) to Excalibur (1981) and The Tailor of Panama (2001) charmed festivaliers with perceptions, opinions, and stories about his long career. For Boorman, the business has been a "voracious monster" that clawed at his family life while providing intense relationships with crewmembers during productions.
Boorman is not happy about the state of film in the 21st century. He claims that if Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in today's atmosphere of frenzied marketing aimed at huge grosses on the opening weekend, it would tank. In Boorman's heyday, good films rolled out gradually and eventually found their audiences. The director also regrets that pictures like There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, while brilliantly made, are unadventurously classical and disturbingly cynical. "They express nihilism, an aridity I find unpalatable," he said.
When movies are their finest, Boorman continued, "They give us the license to stare, to connect us with dreams."
As for the FNC's programming, festival-goers buzzing around the screening venues kept telling me how strong it was. Among films that had already clicked at other events, Kioshi Kuorsawa's Tokyo Sonata aims at real-life horror with the muted strangeness of the director's highly-regarded J-horror pictures. In the movie, which could be subtitled Downfall of a Salary man, an administrative type (Teruyuki Kagawa) pretends that he's still working when his company outsourcers his duties to China. When his wife (Kyoko Koizumi) and two sons (Yu Koyanagi, Kai Inowaki), intuit that father doesn't know best, family relations sour considerably.
Representing the moviemaking extremes the FNC has always trumpeted, David Lynch's daughter Jennifer has come up with Surveillance, a mockery of police procedurals that starts goofy, gets bizarre, and flips out with a twist offering jaw-dropping performances from Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond. Another shocker, Pascal Laugier's Martyrs is a Quebec-French copro shot in Montreal. The movie stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy when France's Society of Film Directors got the Review Board’s 18+ rating lowered to 16. The elegantly directed picture focuses on the horrifying torments endured by two young women (Mylène Jampanoï and Morjana Alaoui) at the hands of people who believe they're acting with the best intentions. The movie toys with the nightmare logic of French fear classics like Les Diaboliques and Les Yeux sans visages, while suggesting Rosemary’s Baby and spiralling into the depravities of Torture Porn.
Winner of the FNC's Daniel Langlois Innovation Award, Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir was the festival’s most unique selection. An Israel-French copro, the movie depicts the traumatized memories of Israeli men who were young soldiers during the first Lebanon War. An experiment in animated documentary, real people Folman interviewed are rendered into art via rotoscoping while hyper-real flash animation conflates the horrors of war with the soldiers' early 1980's consciousness (Punk, Goth, Patchouli oil and surfboards). The animation makes the content even more disturbing by aestheticizing it. You want to escape into the pleasures of the film’s graphic excellence, but you can't.
Of the Canadian films at the festival, Michael MacKenzie's Adam’s Wall opens with a cute first meeting between Yasmine (Flavia Bechara) and Adam (Jesse Aaron Dwyre). During a student riot, they lie on the floor head-to-head, she in a burka, he wearing a yarmulke. Flavia turns out to be a Lebanese Christian while Adam is a Jew who lives with his orthodox rabbi grandfather, a man with zero tolerance for goyim, especially when they’re from the Middle-East. In this modestly-budgeted film, MacKenzie pulls off an engaging Romeo and Juliet love story while bringing Montreal’s culturally diverse Mile End district vibrantly to life. When Adam’s Wall opened in Quebec a few weeks after the festival, it was one of the best performing Canadian movies at the box office.
Like MacKenzie’s picture, Atom Egoyan's Adoration focuses on a parentless young man (Devon Bostick) whose family drama invokes major global issues. Because this is an Egoyan film, lines between fiction and reality get crossed, characters are entangled in new media, and links between them are enigmatic until the not particularly revelatory final revelation. The picture features one of the most unusual dialogue lines I’ve ever heard, Arsinée Khanjian’s "Do you think I would vomit on my own rug?"
As usual, the National Film Board of Canada was all over the festival, screening work it produced on its own, or with partners. In Nollywood Babylon, Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal zig-zag through Nigeria's anarchic capitol, Lagos, where twenty million people struggle to survive. The Nigerians' entrepreneurial spirit in the face of merciless economic conditions, and their innate genius for storytelling, yielded Nollywood, which in less than 20 years has become the world's third largest movie-making industry.
The doc zooms in on a sensationally melodramatic, wildly popular filmmaking depicting an Africa radically different from the one seen on the film festival circuit. The film also captures the hectic, zany process of making Nollywood movies, typically budgeted at less than $20000, by following top director Lancelot Imasuen shooting a film about a prostitute in need of redemption.
For Quebeckers, or anyone interested in filmic depictions of beautiful cities, Luc Bourdon’s The Memory of Angels is a yearning look back at 1950's and 60's Montreal. There's Geneviève Bujold, and Oscar Peterson, and high-heeled winter booties on snowy streets, and lunch in Schwartz's Deli. Bourdon, who culled all the impressionistic doc's images from the NFB's archives, picked up the festival's Grand Prix Focus Cinémathèque québécoise.
A special mention from the Focus jury was bestowed on Brett Gaylor’s RIP: Remix Manifesto, an "open-source" film that samples and mixes all kinds of audio-visual material. For Gaylor, there's nothing wrong with grabbing copyrighted sights and sounds material to create exciting mixes and mash-ups. The festival celebrated the doc at a special event where you could check out remixes of the film itself, not to mention take pictures of yourself and plug them into the mix.
Another NFB co-venture, Ryan Larkin's Spare Change evokes the onetime Film Board animator’s life as a panhandling bum who tried to entertain his clients. In the aftermath of Chris Landreth’s Ryan, the Oscar-winning short that immortalized the artist, Larkin worked on Spare Change until his death last winter. The movie, completed by Larkin’s protector and collaborator, musician Laurie Gordon, screened at the FNC with Adrian Wills' All Together Now, which recounts the origins and development of the Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles show, Love.
And from the Arctic, Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu’s Before Tomorrow is a voyage into 19th century Inuit life, seen through women’s eyes. Made by the Arnait Video collective, the movie recalls the work of its executive producers, Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn. Cohn also served as DP on Before Tomorrow, once again capturing the Inuit and the landscape they live in with gorgeous luminosity.
Lost in the Woods
During the 1940's, the issue that most divided Quebec from English-speaking Canada was conscription into the military. A few years after 72% of Quebecers voted against it in a plebiscite, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie ordered a draft to supply troops for the war effort. After all, the stakes were extremely high. Just released, director Simon Lavoie’s debut feature, Le déserteur, plays out against this background. Based on fact, the movie’s protagonist, Georges Guénette (Émile Proulx-Cloutier) goes AWOL from the army and hides out in rural Quebec. Intermittently, Georges emerges from the forest, appearing like some kind of spirit. When the authorities come after him, and other young men, they invade and destroy homes, which is what this story is all about.
Narrated in a fractured chronology, the movie recalls well-crafted Quebec films of the 1970's, movies like Jean Beaudin's J.A. Martin Photographe. Le déserteur is slow-paced and sensitive to nuances of landscapes and fluctuations in weather.
Also on screen in Quebec, Olivier Asselin’s prescient Un capitalisme sentimental flashes back to the cusp of the 1929 financial crash. In Paris, an artist with a bleak future (Lucille Fluet) gets turned into a hot commodity on the stock market. Matching his absurd premise, Asselin's style goes outré, mixing black and white and colour, and at times veering into something like a 1930's-style musical. The opening picture at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema, the Quebec-made Un capitalisme sentimental drew both praise and scorn for its whacky surrealism.