Friday, 19 February 2016

LOOKING FOR MIKE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Compulsive, Deeply Moving Mystery

Looking For Mike (2016)
Dir. Dylan Reibling
Prd. Laura Perlmutter, Andrew Nicholas McCann Smith
Starring: Dylan Reibling, Dave Perry, Jim Cairnes

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Looking for Mike is easily one of the most haunting, compulsively compelling and deeply moving mysteries I've seen in quite some time. Its narrative propels you with the force of a heavily-coaled steam engine and its central figure is imbued with the doggedness of a pit bull's jaws upon its quarry, the kindness of a saint and the calm intelligence of a man whose obsession is virtually a life mission.

Imagine that you are this person.

You're a small town boy in the big, cold city. You begin working at a small high-tech internet startup under the harsh glare of fluorescent lights, bland industrial carpet beneath your feet and placed within one of several cubicles.

Did life just get lonelier than you ever imagined?

Luckily, you hit it off almost immediately with an amiable colleague ten years your senior. Happily and coincidentally, you're both from Goderich, the same sleepy town in Southern Ontario, perhaps the most picaresque community in Canada with a magical cliff overlooking Lake Huron and providing - not one, but TWO sunsets. (No kidding!)

There's so much to talk about and so much to connect with.

When you receive a call from the police informing you of your best friend's death, it's a shocker in more ways than one. He died alone at the age of 33 from a heart attack. Even more astonishing is that your friend is not who you thought he was. He lived and maintained a job and friendship with you under a fake identity. Nothing connects him to anywhere or anyone. All that remains amongst his personal effects is a card, which directs anyone who finds him dead, to phone a specific funeral home. He's prepaid his burial, one week before his death.

Who was this person? Was your whole friendship a lie? Would this person you cared about remain six feet under for an eternity, remembered by virtually nobody but yourself and a few colleagues? Worse yet, as the friend didn't "exist", there are no next-of-kin to provide permission to view any official reports which might have provided some information, some closure.

Nobody knows. Nobody cares. Except you.

Twelve years pass. The longer you wait, the colder the trail is going to get.

The time is now.

This is the reality that faced filmmaker Dylan Reibling. He needed to solve the mystery. Not just for himself, but for his friend - now over one decade dead, but not forgotten, certainly not by Dylan. And whomever his friend really was, maybe, just maybe, there was someone, somewhere out there who had also not forgotten him.

Looking for Mike is, you see, a first-person documentary, but it unravels with the skill and artistry of a genuinely great mystery thriller. With assistance from such real-life experts as Dave Perry (a private detective, formerly of the Toronto Police Service Homicide Division) and Jim Cairnes, retired from his position as Ontario's Deputy Chief Coroner, Reibling, along with his committed producers and key creative crew, embarked upon solving the mystery of his pal by detailing it as it happened on film.

Not knowing it's an actual documentary, and given its darker qualities, one might even think they're watching something akin to Jim McBride's eerie 1967 groundbreaker David Holzman's Diary. But a documentary it is, and a damn fine one at that.

Imbued with all the qualities one expects from a real filmmaker (as opposed, say, to someone bashing off a more informational/journalistic piece or a non-filmmaker being given enough rope to tell their story), Looking for Mike falls neatly into the genre of personal, first-person docs created by the likes of Alan Zweig (Hurt, A Hard Name, Vinyl), Fredrik Gertten (Big Boys Go Bananas), Ross McElwee (Sherman's March) and amongst a few others, Tony Asimakopoulos (Fortunate Son).

In some ways, I was reminded most of Alan Zweig and Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg).

Reibling's personal story happily avoids the kind of self-aggrandizing tub-thumping one might see in a similar documentary from America where the country's ethos would insist upon the filmmaker's "triumph" being the key denouement, but no such triumph exists here. The filmmaker is simply and firstly, a human being who genuinely wants to find the truth behind his mysterious friend, but to also provide some closure to those who might have known the "original" Mike.

Reibling's journey takes him into the lives of people who have been devastated by the disappearance of loved ones and his discomfort with this is clearly palpable. Most importantly, like Zweig, Reibling is not only creating his film as a genuinely brilliant filmmaker, but his film becomes a form of advocacy on the part of its subject(s).

Like Maddin, with My Winnipeg, Reibling roots parts of his story in a hauntingly evocative sense of place (he and Mike shared so many memories of life in Goderich) and one gets a strong, even familiar sense, of how important the specificities of place are. However, no matter how specific the memories, Reibling, like Maddin, evokes feelings which allow for us to have a way in to the subjects and the filmmaker.

This is a film which also manages to work in terms of both human interest and, most importantly, in terms of bringing to light the whole issue of missing persons. We see exactly what kind of time and work goes into this. No wonder thousands of people go missing and are never found. Though Reibling's film is not intentionally an indictment of Canada's shoddy record in ignoring the missing, the fact that the movie exists and that it extensively details just one missing person, makes it, perhaps unintentionally, an indictment indeed. (The film is required viewing for the widest possible audiences, but it's especially important for politicians and law enforcement agencies to see. It's a film that could well provoke far more attention and funding for the thousands of "cold cases" lying ignored in databases from coast to coast.}

Reibling's filmmaking pedigree includes some straight-up TV docs, but most importantly, Silent Garden, one of the best short films ever made in Canada, stands as a deeply moving, visually sumptuous love story of a time when cinema was in its most delicate and truly imaginative stages of development - when the groundwork for cinematic storytelling was laid. There are certainly elements of his obvious love for cinema in Looking For Mike. A number of the (thankfully brief, but effective) dramatic recreations and even the interviews, are gorgeously photographed (by Stephen Chung) and feature a variety of evocative lighting styles - from high-contrast noir qualities to the strange beauty inherent in the shifting landscapes of Southern Ontario.

If there is one problem, and really, it's not a problem in the traditional sense, is that Looking for Mike feels too short. Clearly this is a result of needing to acquiesce to broadcaster needs, as opposed to aesthetic ones. This is, however, a "problem" most filmmakers would die for - a movie in which the audience wants MORE. (God knows, the "wanting more" part and the propulsive qualities of the film can be credited to editor Jordan Crute and his slam-bang cutting.)

The movie is replete with unanswered questions, but none of them affect the overall quality of the film itself. In fact, they provide for the kind of food for thought once the film is over, which allow it to settle and stay with you long after. This is pretty cool, but deep down, I do wish the film had been a shorter feature. Perhaps, at some point, it will be.

In the meantime, Looking for Mike, can be seen (by Canadians only, for now) Thursday, March 3, 2016 at 9 PM on CBC-TV's "First Hand".


Tuesday, 16 February 2016

THE KID - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Charlie Chaplin's immortal tear-wrencher on Criterion

The Kid (1921)
Dir. Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Tom Wilson, Carl Miller

Review By Greg Klymkiw

When a poverty-stricken unwed mother (Edna Purviance) is spurned by the father (Carl Miller) of her newborn baby, she decides, in desperation, to abandon the child so it will have a chance at a better life. She doesn't place it on any old doorstep, however, but finds a fancy car in front of a huge mansion. She places her babe in swaddling clothes gently in the backseat and forces herself to leave before she changes her mind. 

Unfortunately, she does change her mind, but her timing couldn't be worse. Upon her return, she discovers that the car's been stolen by two thugs. Upon discovering the baby, they abandon it in the streets, smack dab in the middle of a slum.

Who then happens upon the child?

Who else?

A funny-looking little tramp (Charlie Chaplin). Yup, this kid is going to have a very interesting life. If you're abandoned in a slum, there's probably no better surrogate Dad to bring you up and teach you the ways of the dirty, mean streets.

And so begins The Kid.

It's such a terrific picture, I have three fervent proclamations:

1. If The Kid doesn't have you squirting Old Faithful-style geysers of tears from thine ocular orbs, releasing Niagara Falls-like streams of mucous via your nasal cavities and most importantly, weeping (in the parlance of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now) "like some grandmother", I hereby charge that you are not human.

2. If The Kid doesn't have you howling with laughter until you bruise your knees from slapping them so hard, shred your throat until it's raw and bleeding from your mirth-filled shrieks and coming close to soiling yourself with heavier matter "down below", I furthermore charge that you have no sense of humour.

3. If you are a parent and have not yet screened The Kid for your children, you deserve to be reported to a Child Welfare Agency in your jurisdiction.

Charlie Chaplin's The Kid is that great. It's also technically his first feature length film and by 1921 when it was first released, it was, at 53-minutes, his longest film. Prior to this he'd made innumerable one-reelers and two reelers for companies like Keystone, Essanay, Mutual and First National but needing more creative control, the ability to financially back his own work and generate even wider releases, he joined forces with D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1919 and created the distribution company United Artists.

Lots of laughs, tears of sadness, tears of joy,
All of it, sublime
The Kid was his first film for United Artists and it proved to be a major box-office success. It's not surprising why. Chaplin pulled out all the stops on this one by tackling such issues as the place of women in society, child poverty and homelessness, but he did it with humour, sentiment and considerable aplomb, crafting a film that hit things the "everyman" could relate to, but wrapping it up in a bow that could provide hope that the impossible could happen, that dreams beyond one's wildest dreams could, in fact, come true.

Offering people hope is certainly not the worst thing an artist can do and with The Kid, Chaplin doled it out like some philanthropic madman serving free ice cream to poor kids in the slums.

However, before we (and the characters) get to experience hope, Chaplin puts us through a major ringer. There are, of course, plenty of laughs as the tramp and cute-as-a-button 5-year-old (Jackie Coogan) pull a variety of scams, always barely escaping the watchful eye of a beat cop (Tom Wilson). The funniest of these scams has the kid hurling rocks through windows and the tramp conveniently showing up as a repairman to fix them up.

But then, we get the tears.

Illness, orphanages and overall heartbreak follow. How can it not? This is Chaplin, after all. As a baby, the kid was wrenched from his mother, and now, as a little boy, he is wrenched from the surrogate Dad who loves him.

Chaplin creates a cruel and unfair world that the poor and disenfranchised are forced to live in. Chances are good that he drew considerable inspiration from his own childhood and, as it always did, these personal elements add considerably to this film (and so many others). His filmmaking mastery is already prevalent in this early work and whether he generates either humour or sadness, the result is sublime.

And yes, there is also hope. That might be the most sublime element of all.


The Kid is one of the best Criterion Collection Blu-Rays in years. It features a new 4K digital restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s 1972 rerelease version of the film, featuring an original score by Chaplin, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray; a new audio commentary featuring Chaplin historian Charles Maland; Jackie Coogan: The First Child Star, a new video essay by Chaplin historian Lisa Haven; A Study in Undercranking, a new program featuring silent-film specialist Ben Model; interviews with Coogan and actor Lita Grey Chaplin; excerpted audio interviews with cinematographer Rollie Totheroh and film distributor Mo Rothman; deleted scenes and titles from the original 1921 version of The Kid; “Charlie” on the Ocean, a 1921 newsreel documenting Chaplin’s first return trip to Europe; footage of Chaplin conducting his score for The Kid; Nice and Friendly, a 1922 silent short featuring Chaplin and Coogan, presented with a new score by composer Timothy Brock, a whack of trailers; and an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning.

Monday, 1 February 2016

UPTIGHT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Blacklisted 40s Noir Director updates John Ford classic "The Informer" from the Irish "troubles" to post-Martin Luther King assassination Cleveland.

Uptight (1968)
Dir. Jules Dassin
Scr. Jules Dassin, Ruby Dee, Julian Mayfield
Nvl. Liam O'Flaherty
Starring: Julian Mayfield, Max Julien, Ji-Tu Cumbuka, Raymond St. Jacques, Ruby Dee, Roscoe Lee Browne, Frank Silvera, Juanita Moore, Robert DoQui

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Liam O'Flaherty's classic 1925 novel was the basis for his cousin John Ford's immortal 1935 film The Informer, the simple, powerful story about an alcoholic cellar-dwelling brute in the Rebel-cause who betrays his best-friend to the authorities during the Irish War of Independence. Uptight is a 1968 remake by blacklisted film noir director Jules Dassin (Brute Force, The Naked City, Night and the City) faithfully transplanting O'Flaherty's story to the civil rights revolutionary movement in America by replacing the burgeoning Irish Republican Army with a fictionalized rendering of the Black Panthers in Cleveland.

To say Uptight is a forgotten masterwork of 60s/70s American Cinema would not, in spite of its lower-budget pedigree and a few bits of roughness around the edges, be an exaggeration. It's an endlessly fascinating, evocative take on the tragic implications of Martin Luther King's assassination amongst African Americans who chose violence to meet the injustices of the "Ruling" class, diametrically opposing King's peaceful actions (which, of course, were met with violence).

Dassin, the American son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, had long-dreamed of setting the book in just this fashion and miraculously managed to successfully pitch the property to Paramount Pictures during the rich "Easy Riders Raging Bulls" period wherein the artist/inmates were briefly allowed to run the studio/asylums. Alas, the film appears to have been barely released and has indeed been largely forgotten.

Dassin's greatest successes as a filmmaker were to carefully blend legendary producer Mark Hellinger's heavy-duty combo of gritty location work with carefully matched studio art direction. Fleeing the House of Un-American Activities for his involvement in the Communist Party, he carried on this same tradition in Europe and made the heist film Rififi, inarguably one of the greatest crime pictures in the history of French Cinema.

With Uptight, Dassin assembled an absolute dream team with impeccable results.

In addition to a cast of America's greatest African American actors of the time (or any time), Dassin was blessed with a rich script he co-wrote with the film's Black stars Ruby Dee and Julian Mayfield, stunningly gritty cinematography on the mean streets of Cleveland by Boris Kaufman (On the Waterfront, 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker), first-rate production design by Alexandre Trauner (Children of Paradise, Port of Shadows, The Man Who Would Be King) that astonishingly matched studio sets with the locations, the expert cutting of editor Robert Lawrence (Spartacus, El Cid, Fiddler on the Roof), costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge (1974's The Great Gatsby, Network, The Rose) and last, but never, ever least, a GREAT musical score by Booker T. Jones, including his massive 1962 Stax Records hit "Green Onions". (If you don't know Jones, or at the very least, Booker T. and the MGs, then you know NOTHING.)

Eschewing the redemptive approach chosen by John Ford and his screenwriter Dudley Nichols in 1935, Dassin and team use O'Flaherty's underlying literary material to drag us through a dramatically tragic and stylistically (albeit borderline) example of neorealism which is shaken (not stirred) with dollops of expressionism. Other than a sentimental death for a traitor on the steps of a church and the updated setting, Uptight is strangely familiar to the Ford picture (at least on a simple narrative level).

After a gorgeously edited montage of the immediate Memphis aftermath to King's assassination (all in glorious, grainy colour) and expertly blended with scenes introducing the anger of the Cleveland Black-Panther-like revolutionaries, we plunge immediately into the familiar tale (which won Victor McLaglen his 1936 Best Acting Oscar as the doomed informer Gypo Nolan). His counterpart in Dassin's film is Tank (Julian Mayfield, making a phenomenal acting debut, ignored not only by the 1969 Oscars, but like the film, most everyone).

The burly booze-hound is drunkenly responsible for a major screw-up during an arms heist. His best friend Johnny Wells (Max Julien) is identified as the ringleader and murderer of a security guard. Johnny's parter Rick (Ji-Tu Cumbuka) and head revolutionary B.G. (Raymond St. Jacques, adorned stylishly in a Nehru jacket) are so disgusted with Tank's repeated incompetence that they kick him out of the organization.

Since Tank lost his job at a steel mill, Laurie (Ruby Dee), the love of his life is forced to prostitute herself. Cut loose by the revolutionaries, he's got little to live for and is especially susceptible to the influence of the silver-tongued gay police informant Clarence (Roscoe Lee Browne). Seeing the reward money for Johnny Wells as a way out for himself and Laurie, Tank does the unthinkable and rats out his old friend.

Ah, but just one little drink is needed.

Instead of using the dough as a nest-egg for flight and a better life for Laurie, Tank is pumped up into thinking that for once in his life, he can be seen as a "big man", and he trolls from bar to bar, buying multiple rounds for himself and all his "friends". All he has left is $20 to put in a collection plate during Johnny's funeral (his old pal's been gunned down by the cops thanks to Tank's loose lips).

The inevitable demise awaits him - not on the steps of a church, but upon the slag heaps of a steel mill.

The picture is a heartbreaker, to be sure, but even though it's a period piece, Uptight is as resonant to race relations in America today as it was in the 60s/70s. A good part of this is thanks to Dassin's dazzling direction. The opening heist scene is tension-filled and reminiscent of the "silent" heist in Rififi, the dirty streets of Cleveland seem as foul as those in The Naked City and the violence as raw and unyielding as that seen in Brute Force. The locations and production design, so beautifully lit, pulsate with realism of the neo and expressionistic variety - everything from tenement back alleys to a shuttered old bowling alley (and, of course, the slag heaps of Cleveland). You'll also be treated to a horrifying distorted mirror sequence where Tank drunkenly stumbles amidst freakish bourgeois White folk - a thoroughly unforgettable series of shots.

Dassin's montages are also a thing of foul beauty. Not unlike Slavko Vorkapich's legendary montages, they're infused with the weight of social injustice and the sadness inherent in a world where slavery is still slavery, but with a different name - the status quo, a world in which one of the film's characters opines: "a nigger is still just a nigger".


Uptight is available on a bare-bones Blu-Ray from Olive Films, but the transfer gorgeously reproduces the film's glorious grain and dapples of saturated colour. Given that most people have not seen this important work about the African American revolutionary movement (rooted in Irish literature and remade from a great John Ford masterpiece), it's well worth buying - for those who care about cinema.

If you buy UPTIGHT or any of other related Jules Dassin/John Ford films directly from the Amazon links below, you'll be supporting the ongoing maintenance of The Film Corner: