Friday, 28 February 2014

Film Night with the Two Pauls Premieres on YouTube

Paul Jensen and I talk this year's Best Picture nominees on Film Night with the Two Pauls over a bottle or two (or three) of Cabernet Franc. Big thanks to the brilliant minds at Popkin Media! (See "The Story Behind The Two Pauls" below.)

The Story Behind The Two Pauls
by Paul Donnett

When Vancouver Film School grad and savvy entrepreneur Nick Carey approached film Jedi Paul Jensen about doing a Siskel and Ebert-style web series featuring reviews of films past and present, the man with the exhaustive Star Wars action figure collection literally hidden in his bedroom closet jumped at the opportunity. Bonus: Each episode would feature a bottle of wine, specially paired with the movie in question.

But who would sit in the other chair, they wondered? Who could match wits with Sir Jensen's freakishly encyclopedic mind and show each film its due reverence, whilst remaining j-u-u-u-st sober and coherent enough to bring each episode to a thrilling climax?

The choice was obvious. After all, if there's anyone who knows about thrilling climaxes, it's this guy. Paul and I had actually talked about forging such a venture a year and a half earlier and now, thanks to the fine people at Popkin Media, the two Pauls were about to get their wish! My only condition: one bottle of wine simply wasn't enough.

So Paul, producer Nick Carey, and I met over drinks on Tuesday. Followed by more drinks with Popkin partners Patrick Do and Ben Gaumond on Friday. Followed by an all-day Saturday shoot that took The Two Pauls from concept to production in under a week. Never in my experience has a project come together so quickly, so seamlessly, and with such an enjoyable group of highly competent, over-caffeinated egomaniacs!

Subscribe to Popkin Media to catch future episodes of Film Night With The Two Pauls

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Country: USA
Director: Alan Crosland
Starring: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland
Length: 89 minutes

When Jakie Rabinowitz is caught performing jazz and disciplined by his father, a strict orthodox Jew and synagogue cantor, he runs away and grows up to become jazz singer Jack Robin; but when the demands of his career clash with the demands of tradition and family, he is forced to decide which is more important. 

Based on a play derived from a book by Samson Raphaelson entitled The Day of Atonement. Drawn loosely from Jolson’s life experiences and his prior blackface performance in Robinson Crusoe, Jr. Jolson’s superstar-sex symbol status, combined with a singing and dancing style infused with African American influences, made him the Elvis of his time. Though technically not the very first “talkie”, it was the first of feature length and wasn’t allowed to compete during the 1st annual Academy Awards in 1929 because it was considered to have an “unfair” advantage over its silent peers. Made for $422,000 - nearly $5 million by today’s standards - it ended up grossing 3.9 million in its initial run. Remade in 1952 (with Danny Thomas and Peggy Lee), on TV in 1959 (with Jerry Lewis), and again on film in 1980 (with Neil Diamond). Radio versions in 1936 and 1947 starred Jolson himself.

The Jazz Singer had a deeply profound effect on me. Here is a man forced to choose between being a faithful Jew and a pursuing a career as a jazz singer by a parent who never stops to consider that he could, in fact, be both at the same time. While this had special relevance in the 20’s when Jews confronted a similar dilemma in the film and entertainment industry, it also applies to anyone who has ever faced the cruel and daunting task of “coming out”.

I went through my own cruel Jazz Singer experience beginning at age 21, when I felt compelled to choose between a life devoted to God and one built on who and what I really was: a writer and a musician. Believing they were “of the devil” or otherwise inimical to true faith, I threw away most of my books and CDs and didn’t write a song or story for nearly a decade. It was my own personal Dark Ages, born of a diabolical choice I now realize I was never required to make. (Similar struggles play out in films ranging from Carrie to Footloose to Boys Don’t Cry.)

Here, Jolson’s use of blackface in The Jazz Singer is symbolic, and sadly misunderstood. This isn’t the racist blackface of The Birth of a Nation, in which white actors don makeup for the express purpose of stereotyping and vilifying African Americans. The point here is to highlight the evils of duplicity, of feeling pressured to live two different lives and denying one’s true self, of having to create a false persona just to be loved or viewed as “acceptable”. It’s not enough for Jakie Rabinowitz to change his name to Jack Robin in order to succeed; it’s as if he also needs to obscure his Jewish identity physically, ironically by taking the appearance of another social group that has fought for equality in society. In a more comedic turn, Robert Downey Jr.’s Kirk Lazarus faces the same identity crisis in 2008’s Tropic Thunder.

While blackface minstrel shows were common at the time, many of them discriminatory and pejorative by nature, most critics seem to agree that Jolson’s version of it in The Jazz Singer escapes the “racist” label because of its deeper thematic and symbolic function. A Jew in blackface would also have spoken to the cultural cross-pollinations and corresponding identity crises taking place in American society and art (especially jazz) at the time.

Thankfully, Jolson’s mother comes to the rescue, representing the compassionate and liberated parent we should all want to be. As far as she’s concerned, her son should be true to himself, believing that he honours God as much through his jazz as when singing Kol Nidre at synagogue. Thus his final tribute to her love is, at the same time, a celebration of what makes us different and a ringing endorsement of being true to oneself. Powerful stuff for a musical!

People sometimes get hung up on the blackface. We did at first, too. But don’t drink the Kool-Aid: this is a powerful film about identity and courage, the pain of family divisions and the restorative power of love. One could actually argue that the film goes out of its way to avoid anything like a stereotypical approach to race or religion to make its larger point, as if conscious of what critics might say. The Jazz Singer is the anti-Birth of a Nation, if you will, celebrating the universal human struggle to be true to self while exploring and smashing down the labels and judgments that too often divide us.

And what a mom you are, Mrs. Rabinowitz! May we be half as good as parents to our first child, whenever he or she arrives. (Hint, hint, Him!)

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The 86th Annual Academy Awards

If film is our religion, then the Oscars are our Holy Grail. Which means that this Sunday, it's time to PAAARRTYYY!

Invitations to our Oscar Party went out weeks ago. The wine will be a'flowin' as we offer up nine different appetizers, each inspired by one of the Best Picture nominations. (We told you we took this seriously!)

Then comes the second most anticipated event of the night (nerd alert): Oscar Bingo!

Which, by the way, looks something like this:

If you want to join in on the fun and go "Full Oscar" like us (of course you do), feel free to download a copy of our homemade, super deluxe Bingo Cards here.

... and don't forget to grab your Oscar Ballot here!


And good luck!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Guest Post: The Power & Influence of German Expressionism (by Paul Jensen)

Silent Cinema was a film renaissance, and amongst those leading the pack was the German Expressionist movement starting in 1920.  

Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is widely regarded as one of the first Expressionistic films.  The film’s radical approach presented a world supremely surreal, abstract and distorted.  The set design, actors’ make-up and gestures were all exaggerated, and while the Lumiere Bros captured life “as is, the Germans presented it as highly stylized.  

If that wasn’t innovative enough, at the end of the film, form compliments content with the revelation that the narrator of the film (Caligari) is in fact in an insane asylum, so it is only natural for the world to appear distorted to him.  Therefore, the look of the film - its point of view - had a reason to exist the way it does: it was part of the story.  Thus, not only is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari the first expressionistic film, it has also etched its way into history as the first horror film.

Much like the similar revolution in painting from classical to abstract, the success of the German Expressionist movement suddenly freed up the potential of cinema as artists realized they could portray the world in any stylized way they wanted, rather than purely classical or even impressionistic approaches.   

Quite often expressionist films have a surreal or nightmarish quality about them which leaves many viewers feeling unsettled.  Carl Dryer’s Vampyr (1932) is a perfect example of this, asking a great deal of its audience by drawing us out of our comfort zones in order to appreciate the film for what it is. 

It’s interesting that even though moviegoers are savvier than ever, most of us are still unable or unwilling to accept a film that challenges the boundaries of mainstream filmmaking.  Many viewers prefer to take movies as a direct reflection of a life they can escape into rather than an artistic representation of what life is.  Teeming with ambiguity, expressionistic films are not for the passive watcher; they ask for an engaged audience to meet them half-way.  The objective here is not to search for a perfect open-and-shut answer. After all, that’s not actually the way life usually works. 

Through Expressionism, however, the Germans stumbled upon a style that has conquered time.  This is a bold statement, I know, but perhaps one I can explain best by giving an example from horror movies.  Starting in the early 1930’s the horror genre began to take off in Hollywood, yet if these releases are watched today, they feel dated and certainly aren’t as scary as they must have been back in the day.   

Now compare German Expressionistic horror films. Vampyr is, once again, a perfect example.  This film still has the power to unsettle an audience and instill within us an eerie feeling of foreboding.  The hallucinatory visuals and performances slither into the portion of our minds where nightmares are made.  They could never be ‘real’, which is precisely what makes them ‘believable’.  This is what manages to slip into our consciousness and disturb us. 

While the Germans were experimenting with Expressionism, further east the Russians were establishing their own movement.  The Soviet Montage theory revolutionized cinema in the realm of film editing.  Sergei Eisenstein exposed audiences to a level of violence never before seen on screen in the famous Odessa steps sequence of his film Battleship Potemkin (1925).  In the scene, he cuts back and forth to a frantic mother who has lost her grip on her baby carriage in the middle of a murderous revolutionary mayhem before watching in horror as the carriage plummets down the stairs.  Many movies have since payed homage to this moment, from The Untouchables (1987) to Brazil (1985).  At the time of its release, this scene would have made as big of an impact on audiences as the opening of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998. 

Also toying with Soviet Montage was Dziga Vertov whose 1929 silent documentary Man With a Movie Camera captured an average day in the cities of Odessa, Kharkiv and Kiev in the Ukraine.  Vertov’s experimental film featured no story and no actors. Instead he captured images of Soviet citizens going about their business from dawn till dusk.  More recently, Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqattsi (1982) and Ron Frike’s Baraka (1992) attempt to capture the same sort of thing: life as it is.  Films like these save a snippet of life as it was in their time, a priceless treasure for generations to come.  They are able to encapsulate our entire humanity and allow us to step back and observe ourselves and our societies.

Silent films may not be for everyone, but for those with a desire to explore them, they are certainly worth the time.  It can even be argued that they are the purest form of visual storytelling.  Either way, they are borne out of a love for storytelling. A lack of language allowed the same story to resonate across the globe in a way that united people under a universal Jungian collective unconscious.  Sight and Sound Magazine - one of the world’s most respected cinephile magazines - releases a poll of the world’s greatest films every 10 years in which, inevitably, several silent films (F.W. Murnua’s Sunrise for example) make the cut. 

Looking at it another way, if the Medieval period in classical music were compared ‘still images’, then the Baroque period would be akin to silent cinema.  Whether we’re listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons or Handel’s Water Music, it is still able to touch us and connect with our souls even though the Renaissance, Classical, Romantic and Modern period were all yet to come.  The same goes for film: you might say, the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s would all bring something new and exciting with the 70’s and beyond serving as the cinematic equivalent of post-modernism. 

If we think about it, it is absolutely astonishing how quickly cinema would evolve and how sophisticated it would become in just over a century of artistic experimentation.  It is undoubtedly, the most successful art form for the 20th century, but all its advances do not erase the influence brought out by its mother, silent cinema. 

Monday, 10 February 2014

Metropolis (1926)

Country: Germany
Director: Fritz Lang
Starring: Brigitte Helm, Gustav Frohlich, Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge
Written by: Fritz Lang & Thea von Harbou (wife)
Length: 148 minutes (2010 restored version) / 153 minutes (original, lost)

Freder, son of industrialist tycoon Joh Fredersen, is disturbed by the rich-poor divide in the futuristic city of Metropolis and with the help of the beautiful Maria, searches for a way to unite the classes before a revolt takes the city down.

Considered the first great science fiction film with clear thematic and stylistic influences on films like Blade Runner, Star Wars, and The Dark Knight Rises, novels from George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and filmmakers such as Terry Gilliam, James Cameron, and Chris Nolan. Filmed on a budget of 5 million Reichsmark with an initial box office take of 75,000 Reichsmark.

A novel written by Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, preceded the film and was serialized in the German paper Illustriertes Blatt in the months leading up to the premiere. On set, actors famously dealt with gruelling physical and emotional challenges, including countless takes, dangerous exposure to fire and immersion in cold water, and a robot suit for 18 year-old actress Brigitte Helm that left her battered and bruised. Studios and subsequent investors cut some scenes to shorten the film, based in part on the perception that the film endorsed political and religious views deemed inappropriate.

The original score was composed by Gottfried Huppertz but techno legend Giorgio Moroder's 1984 restored version brought in music by Freddie Mercury, Adam Ant, Pat Benatar and others. 25 lost minutes were restored in the 2010 restoration.

It's impossible to ignore that Metropolis hit theatres a mere 25 years after the hitherto-groundbreaking Voyage dans la lune by French director Georges Méliès: mind-blowing proof of the light-years leap in evolution film had taken in a very short time. By just about any measure you can mention - theme, tone, narrative, acting, set design, cinematography, special effects, editing - Metropolis set a benchmark not only transcending the films that went before, but that filmmakers are still trying to emulate today.  

I loved this movie. Just sit back and let the first ten minutes run and you'll be hooked. Workers end their exhausting ten-hour shift in the "machine" and shuffle to their homes in unison, dour, long-faced, purposeless. Pull back for a view of Metropolis' eye-popping gothic and Art Deco cityscapes (rumoured to have been influenced by a trip the director took to New York in 1924), and behold a future utterly brimming with hope for some while cruelly withholding it from most.

Poignant biblical references comparing the business world to the Tower of Babel and the exploitation of workers to the ancient human sacrifices offered to the god Moloch resonate today in the ongoing battle between the 1% and 99%. Perhaps, as some critics have suggested over the years, the film's resolution is a bit childish and simplistic, but the socio-economic issues it addresses were never truer, as evidenced in similarly-themed films like Brazil, Land of the Dead, Avatar, and The Hunger Games.
Meanwhile, the film is a beauty to behold, German expressionism in full bloom: massive, surreal sets that effectively suck you in and make you feel small, worker shifts that are more choreographed stage dance than labour, and a handful of composite shots that feel like nightmares on acid.

Geek bonus: Metropolis anticipates the eventual arrival of TV, video chat, advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, cloning, and C-3P0.

 Great, I thought as we pressed play, another silent film. But from the very first scene I was impressed! At its core, the story is solid with themes still relevant today. This was clearly the beginning of sci-fi as we know it, with obvious influences on films like The Island and Demolition Man

I loved the idea that the uniting of society's feuding elements - the "mind" of management and the "hand" of labour - requires the "heart" of common sense, compassion, and skillful negotiation.

Lady bonus: While Freder is the story's protagonist, it is Maria and her evil doppelganger who steal the show by presenting a charismatic and sexually powerful woman in control of pretty much everything going on. Fritz Lang, your wife's a genius!

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Him & Actor Toby Jones @ The Vancity Theatre

British actor Toby Jones is in Vancouver, among other things guest hosting a special screening last night of Hal Ashby's classic, The Last Detailstarring Jack Nicholson - a film he picked personally for the evening followed by an engaging group Q & A.

Jones played Truman Capote in 2006's Infamous and has been prolific in dozens of films, including Frost/NixonTinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the Harry PotterHunger Games, and Captain America franchises.

A great time was had by all!

Vancity Theatre hosts "Cinema Salon" once every month, inviting a different industry professional to pick and speak on a film of their choice. (Refreshments served.)

Visit the VIFF/Vancity Theatre website for info on this and other upcoming events!

(No, I wasn't paid to advertise, I just really dig this theatre!)

Nosferatu (1922)

Also known as: Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror)
Country: Germany
Director: F. W. Murnau
Starring: Max Schreck, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schroder
Based on: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897)
Length: 94 minutes

Thomas Hutter travels to Transylvania from Wisborg, Germany, to finalize the purchase of a Wisborg home by the mysterious Count Orlok. But when Hutter discovers that Orlok is actually a vampire, he must find a way to destroy him before his wife Ellen become the monster’s next victim.

Though not technically the first horror film (credit for that arguably goes to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), Nosfertu forever etched both Dracula and vampire mania into popular culture. Filmed in the German expressionist style using only one camera, Murnau’s classic was actually an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula due to an inability to obtain rights to the story.  When Stoker’s family sued, the courts ordered that all copies be destroyed. Prana Film, the company behind Nosferatu (its only film), went bankrupt to avoid the repercussions of legal action. One print survived, to which all subsequent prints are forever indebted.

Unlike later vampires, Orlok doesn’t turn his victims into the undead, he merely bleeds them dry. Two versions of the film exist, subtitle-wise: one in which the characters bear the names invented by Murnau and screenwriter Henrik Galeen, and the other with the original names from Stoker’s novel. The original score by Hans Erdmann was lost over time, resulting in countless new scores by various artists since. (See John Malkovich and Willem Defoe in Shadow of the Vampire!)

When I was nine years old, one film and one TV show - both about vampires - ruined me for life. The first was Dracula starring a young and dashing Frank Langela, the other was the TV movie version of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. It was 1979 and my father, God bless him, thought it no big deal to bring his only child to the movies to enjoy a little popcorn among the undead. I still can’t watch Mina creep towards the screen, cold hands outstretched, calling out for her “Papa”.

Similar good judgment the year before had rendered me perpetually catatonic at beaches thanks to a certain great white shark. 

But it was the Master vampire in Salem’s Lot that really freaked me out. That bald, white head, those bat-like ears, those ferocious incisors, that. . .wait a minute! And they accused Nosferatu of ripping Bram Stoker off?! The fact is, the make-up and costume for Salem’s ghoulish villain was stolen detail for detail from the big N, suggesting that by 1979, there weren’t a lot of fresh cinematic spins left when it came to the Count and his ilk. (Forgive me, Mr. Coppola.)

However, put yourself in a seat at the theatre nearly 60 years earlier, before Romero, Friedkin or Carpenter, and imagine how Nosferatu must have affected audiences then! I agree with Roger Ebert that, by today’s standards, the film is creepier than it is frightening. But it is so, even in a generation inured to big-screen visualizations of terror, mainly because it taps so deeply into our primal fear of what might be waiting for us around that corner, whether on an evening stroll at night alone or in our darkest nightmares.

Corny in places? Yup. Occasionally unbearable stretches of eye-rolling melodrama? Mm-hmm. But whenever Count Orlak turned and began lurking toward the screen, I still managed to turn into a slightly paralyzed puddle of goo. Thanks, Dad!

This story will seem awfully familiar if you’ve read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, for reasons already well stated. Thomas Hutter sets out for Transylvania to settle a real estate deal with the Count over a piece of property conveniently located across the street from his own home. Finding great neighbours: priceless!

As he makes his way to the Count’s castle, he runs across some fairly obvious indicators that maybe this isn’t such a great idea. Naturally, he laughs them off (literally) before continuing on. After all, he could really use the commission! But when Tom arrives and wakes up the next morning with “bug bites” on his neck, accompanied by Count Orlak’s praise of Ellen’s “beautiful neck” in a photograph Tom is carrying, it finally occurs to the old boy what a bloody mess he’s gotten himself into. Ahem.

There are some good scares in this one, as well as some great action and a score that really helps sell the fear, even if it’s not the original. Putting myself in the context of the time, I was able to get into it. Nonetheless, I couldn’t quite get over how completely Murnau had ripped off Stoker’s novel. How dare he, I gasped defensively over and over again as Paul soothed me with sweet nothings like, “really?” and “get over it!” Still, it’s easy to see how Nosferatu helped shape what horror films look like today.

Now can we please move on to movies where we can hear what the people are saying??

Nope, not yet. Remember, this was your idea.

Where’s the chocolate??