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Off the Rails

Filmmaker Adam Irving’s heart-wrenching documentary Off the Rails tells the relatively untold story of New Yorker Darius McCollum. I say “relatively unknown” because Darius has become a cause for amusement and great concern in New York City by way of mass amounts of often skewed press coverage. By definition, Darius is a criminal, but his crimes are largely victimless and the result of health issues that no one in the city or state of New York seem willing to understand or address outside of repeatedly tossing the man in prison.

Since his youth, Darius, who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, has been fascinated with the trains, busses, and infrastructure of New York’s MTA transit system. Often coming underground as a kid to forget the worries of being bullied at school, Darius was immediately a fixture of the subway system, and MTA employees gravitated to this exceptionally bright young man. Some even went as far as letting Darius drive trains (both supervised and unsupervised) and cover shifts. One day while filling in for a subway conductor who left work for a bit to hang out with their girlfriend, Darius experienced the first of 32 arrests and imprisonments for impersonating a transit worker.

Driven by his love of transit and the feelings of warmth, safety, and belonging he gets by acting out his fantasies, Darius is actually a sweet, kind, fatally flawed human being that many lawmakers (including an insufferably smug assistant D.A. who smiles at the thought of throwing Darius in prison and a judge who learned everything she knows about Aspergers from a Google search) seek to vilify him to a severe degree.

Irving tackles the difficult subjects of mental illness, criminal behaviour, trauma, and a revolving door justice system with strength and dexterity. Irving knows that what Darius does is wrong, and that the mere nature of filming his exploits gives the man the attention and worth he craves, but the filmmaker wants people to know that Darius’ problems could have been easily solved years before his exploits ever became something to be feared. Not only is Off the Rails an expert portrait of a fascinatingly misunderstood figure, but a blunt, necessary indictment of a legal system that doesn’t give a damn about rehabilitation because there’s more money to be wasted in keeping people locked up instead of giving those falling through the cracks jobs, second chances, and the counselling they so desperately need. There were so many chances to make Darius feel good about himself and keep him away from the cycle he finds himself in, and no one did a damn thing.

This is an essential, gutting film.

Rating (out of five stars): 4.7 stars

Off the Rails opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, October 7. Director Adam Irving will be in attendance for Q&As following 3:45 pm and 9:00 pm screenings on Friday the 7th and following the 12:30 pm performance on Saturday the 8th.

Check out the trailer for Off the Rails:

 

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Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four

I always tell people that 99% of all films ever made are produced with the best of intentions, and the ill fated, unreleased, and generally underwhelming Roger Corman produced adaptation of Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four in 1994 certainly falls into that category. Filmmaker Marty Langford’s uniquely heartwarming and well researched documentary Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four looks back at an infamous cinematic debacle that was never intended to be released to the public through the eyes of the plucky, hard working cast and crew who had no clue they were making something that was nothing more than a contractual obligation for a bunch of rich people who wanted to get richer.

One could cynically say that films are shot and never released all the time, but as one astute subject points out here: “How many films did Roger Corman produce and never release? One.” Not only is it an anomaly in the career of Corman (who does show up for an interview despite remaining relatively cagey about what he knew and didn’t know about the production), but why would companies like Marvel and Constantin Film and high powered luminaries like Avi Arad (who didn’t respond to countless interview requests) and Stan Lee (appearing in archival footage that makes him look like a jerk and the target of many barbs from cast and crew who see him as a backstabber) go to such lengths to suppress a film where everyone involved worked so hard to make the best movie possible under the worst of conditions?

Real talk: In terms of understanding what The Fantastic Four were all about, director Oley Sassone’s wonky, but genial effort is actually the best filmed version of the comic by a country mile. Yes, it looks terrible (thanks to only being available via worn out VHS dubs) and fan-made pictures have better special effects and sound mixing than this, but it was actually a Fantastic Four movie. Is it good? Nope. Was it the best possible effort with the material to date? Absolutely, and that explains a lot of the film’s cult success and why those involved with the production often gave their own time and money to make it into something everyone could be proud of and be entertained by.

There’s refreshingly no irony to Langford’s approach here, and although sometimes the documentary gets ahead of itself at points while trying to fit in as much detail as possible, this remains a stellar oral history of a maligned production that finally gives the cast and crew their proper due. The doc is unquestionably more entertaining than the film being profiled, but damn if it doesn’t make you appreciate the subject matter a lot more than you might have otherwise.

Rating (out of five stars): 4.2 stars

Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four screens for one night only at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, October 7 at 7:00 pm.

Check out the trailer for Doomed: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four:

 

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The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but mostly because I didn’t expect Eight Days a Week, filmmaker Ron Howard’s look at one of the most widely profiled musical acts in recorded history, to really become the phenomenon that it has. It was originally scheduled for a one night only performance in select cinemas in mid-September, but theatres have kept bringing it back despite its availability already on cable and On Demand. In Canada, if you have cable and The Movie Network, you can watch it basically any time for free.

And yet, people have been flocking to this narrowed down and focused look at how life on the road shaped and shook the members of The Fab Four. Part of that probably stems from theatrical engagements coming packaged with rare bonus footage from The Beatles’ landmark Shea Stadium performance. I can’t speak for the concert footage, but I can say that like most documentaries Howard has made it’s fine, if rather unnecessary.

Although there are new sitdowns with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, Howard still places emphasis on archival material that isn’t revelatory or eye opening, especially for Beatles fans who might be looking for something more or new. The problem with The Beatles is that there’s almost nothing to be said from any aspect of their careers that hasn’t already been said in a wealth of longer, more insightful documentaries. I appreciate that Howard has taken the approach at looking almost exclusively at a single aspect of the band’s career (cutting off just before Sgt. Pepper and the band’s decision to stop performing live entirely), but Eight Days a Week still isn’t much of an experience.

If you love all things Beatles and the bar is set low (or if you know absolutely nothing about them), you’ll still get a kick out of this. For everyone else, it’s kind of a passive experience to watch. It’s thankfully not overwhelming to the point of redundancy, and not underwhelming enough to feel like a slog, but there’s almost no worth in saying anything positive or negative about it.

Rating (out of five stars): 2.9 stars

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years returns to select Cineplex locations throughout the week, begins a two week engagement at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema this Friday, October 7, and can be seen on The Movie Network and TMN On Demand.

Check out the trailer for The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years:

About The Author

Andrew Parker
Senior Writer

Andrew Parker started fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.

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