Trailer: The Amina Profile


This Sundance selected documentary on Amina Arraf, a pretty Syrian-American revolutionary who’s having an online affair with Montrealer Sandra Bagaria, looks interesting. Arraf launched the provocatively named blog, “A Gay Girl in Damascus.” back in 2011, as the Syrian uprising gains was gaining momentum. Amina’s subsequent abduction that sparked an international outcry to free her. Playing out like a detective story, The Amina Profile involves American intelligence agencies, major global media outlets, and a host of activists and sympathizers. But what started as a love story becomes the tale of an unprecedented media and sociological hoax, infotainment, deceit and betrayal.

Carrying forward the ‘texting and social media’ on screen aesthetically is as much of interest to me here, as the socio-political aspects. Sundance has a way of picking their docs in a larger hit-to-miss ratio than their features. Even if there seems to be a fair number of talking heads here, I’ve got my eye on this feature from Sophie Deraspe.

The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 22 to February 1, 2015. The Amina Profile has multiple screenings over the festival.

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VIFF 2014 Review: Que Caramba es la Vida



When you think of Mariachi, the first that comes to mind is likely not a woman but in Mexico City’s Plaza Garibaldi, female Mariachi are a presence even though they’re still a minority. In her latest feature Que Caramba es la Vida, German filmmaker Doris Dörrie travels to Plaza Garibaldi and gets to know a few of the women who make a living belting out traditional Mexican music in a cultural art form that is still dominated by men.

Dörrie introduces us to a few of the women who eek out a living by singing soulful tunes. María del Carmen is the best of the bunch, a single mother who spends her nights singing in the square in order to support her mother and her young daughter. Del Carmen seems an unstoppable force as she applies her make-up and dons her uniform for the evening but Dörrie slowly chips away at the calm and collected exterior and as the documentary progresses, del Carmen and the other women begin to talk candidly about the struggles of a career that is dominated by men and the harassment and hardship they face on a nightly basis.
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Review: La Bare


Director: Joe Manganiello
Producers: Joe Manganiello, Nick Manganiello
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 90 min.

I must admit that when I watched Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, the thought of whether the life of the male stripper portrayed in the movie was accurate, never once crossed my mind but when it was announced that one of the movie’s co-stars was making a documentary about male strippers, I did find myself musing just how accurate Soderbergh’s take was.

Joe Manganiello directs La Bare, a very enjoyable documentary about the men that bring the world famous Dallas strip joint to life and watching the doc, it’s hard not to wonder if 1) Soderbergh sent the boys there for research before the movie and 2) whether this is where Channing Tatum danced because Magic Mike feels like a dramatic interpretation of day to day life at La Bare.

Manganiello opens with a little history lesson on La Bare, the club that has been operating off and on since the 70s. It’s here we meet Randy “Master Blaster” Ricks, the real life version of Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas, a long time dancer who is always looking out for his boys. Ricks is a charismatic character. Still living with his mom who calls herself his number one fan, Ricks comes across as the father figure, the guy who goes out of his way to teach the new guys the ropes so that they don’t screw up their careers and the club along the way. From here we meet some of the other players: the former special ops soldier, the newby and the former dancer turned DJ, among others. These guys all have similar stories about how working at the club has changed their lives but what’s most interesting is the back-stage locker room talk. When Manganiello and his camera wonder around backstage on a work night… that’s when you really see the truth about these guys and that truth may surprise some because for the most part, these men come across as some of the most down-to-earth, respectful guys you could possibly wish for.

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Review: Mission Blue

I am never one to say no to beautifully lit underwater photography, either in grainy 16 mm or pristine HD. Here there is plenty, but the most compelling image in activist/biopic documentary, Mission Blue, is that of a lone plastic lawn chair, sparsely illuminated on the ocean floor. It is a bit of detritus found thousands of miles from land and a reminder that the consequences of our civilization of convenience and plenty, range far. This is hardly news to you, savvy filmgoer and documentary enthusiast, and director Fisher Stevens (with Robert Nixon) are aware that the audience for their film knows the ocean has been used by humanity as a vast sewer.

Thus, the intent of their documentary is to frame things in a new perspective. That is to say, collectively, we have made this colossal mess over pretty much a single lifespan. Take a minute to think about that. With no irony whatsoever, the example span, writ large, is the accomplished Marine Biologist Sylvia Earle, celebrity scientist since the 1960s who is now pushing 80 and still full of life and passion for preservation of earth and memory. But things have changed pretty dramatically since she dipped her toe into the Gulf of Mexico as a child.

Stevens, if you recall, has an Oscar for producing another piece of aquatic activism, 2010’s The Cove, and here he spent three years with Earle, in wetsuits, diving off The Galapagos Islands, on the lecture circuit with bottled water, and in her memories – as a child, spouse (three husbands), mother, numerous expeditions to untouched parts of the world, and even a brief time as government bureaucrat managing The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mission Blue again confirms Werner Herzog’s musing that exploring the deep oceans is analogous to exploring the stars. How deep is the ocean, how high is the sky. The difference is that in our terrestrial big blue, there are teeming amounts of ‘alien’ lifeforms, glowing and gracefully moving; things that make James Cameron’s chemiluminescent CGI recreations in Avatar kindergarten stuff by comparison. Cameron and Earle respectfully tussled over who got to ride in his deep diving submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench a few years ago. Earle broke deep diving records via JIM suit in the 1970s, earlier, she was of the first people to live for a lengthy period of time in an underwater habitat. She lobbied the ‘king of the world’ to get his his tall skinny ass out of his own gear, and give her a shot at going deeper.

She burned through several marriages, had a bunch of kids, and generally shattered any 1950s or 60s notion of the domestic female, becoming a celebrated science icon along the way. She reflects on the difficult of the balancing act for family, and it’s not hard to scale up the notion to how we manage the planet. Mistakes were made, and things chug along, older, more frail, but still hanging in and carrying on. It is a major plus to have the Earle do the bulk of the films voice-over; she is as complex and compelling a human being as one would expect.

She can say, “I saw the before. I saw the after,” when it comes to the death of so many of the worlds great coral reefs and other vibrant parts of the planets hidden depths. The massive depletion of so many types of species of fish (Cod, Menhaden and even the mighty and feared shark) in service of feeding, often indulging, a human population that ballooned from two billion to seven billion people, happened over her lifetime.

How many sharks have people killed compared to how many people sharks have killed? A million to one ratio, most likely. And that is just fishing for the fins that are craved so much in Chinese soups. This does not even count all the dead zones in the ocean we’ve caused in the past 50 years: not just dumping garbage, or Exxon Valdez oil-disasters, these are almost minor compared to the run-off of farming fertilizer carried in the water table and rivers into the oceans which plays holy hell with the eco-system. If the oceans are the planets temperature regulations system, climate change is not just carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it is also the barren spaces we’ve wrought; a chair with a view of the annexation of Earth’s very own ‘Galaxy of Life.’

OK, one can get a little depressed about this stuff, and so, like many activists docs, Mission Blue exits on a hopeful note. The eponymous organization to designate the equivalent of 20% of the ocean space as aquatic National Parks. (No drilling, no dumping, no hunting.) A fifth of the ocean allowed a breather to recover from the burden the last 100 years of human history seems reasonable and sane.

Whether or not you find this documentary didactic or obvious (humans muck up nature, it’s what we do) or even a commercial for Earle’s Mission Blue project, this does not change the fact that it is all clearly and compellingly presented. The discarded lawn chair is a source for almost a paralyzing melancholy, but we can just pick the damn thing up and let nature fix herself.

Mission Blue available exclusively on Netflix, and the trailer is below:

Review: Rich Hill


Director: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos
Producers: Andrew Droz Palermo, Tracy Droz Tragos
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 91 min.

If movies were all we had to go by, it would be easy to assume that Missouri is a prime example of the erosion of Small Town American living. Places where the rich buy $3,000 dollar pies for charity while children down the street live on the brink or below the poverty line. These disparate realities are present in more than just Missouri but it seems that the state’s natural beauty is an attractive counter point to scenes of poverty.

Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’ Sundance award winning Rich Hill turns the camera on the small town of the title, population less than 2,000, and specifically three boys on the brink of being lost. There’s Harley, a young man with anger issues who lives with his grandmother, Appachey, a thirteen year old who acts out at school and Andrew, a quiet and optimistic teen whose story seems tailor made for a future “Based on a True Story” movie. The three come from broken homes but they’re not without a support system.

Harley’s grandmother does what she can but there is a real sense that at 16, he is beyond help. Appachey seems a handful for his single mother who has a house full of kids and no one to help her manage. Appachey seems lonely, mostly ignored by a houseful of sisters and whenever we see him, he’s playing on his own. And then there’s Andrew, a bright eyed, optimistic 14 year old who is clearly frustrated by his family’s constant need to move but realizes that life would be worse if he was on his own. Andrew provides the majority of the voice over material for Rich Hill and that’s mostly because he seems far wiser than his young years. Andrew doesn’t come across as resentful or angry at his situation, only keenly aware that this is the reality of his life. He’s determined to do better for himself than what has been provided for him and there is little doubt he will succeed.

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Fantasia Review: The Search For Weng Weng

I first encountered the work of Filipino action hero and tiny man-child Weng Weng at this very festival in 2007.

Andy Stark and Pete Tombs ran an absolutely bonkers reel of money shots from their Mondo Macabro release label in front of a Pakistani slasher film they produced that was playing at Fantasia that year. There was more than enough “WTF” splashed on screen for those wild 16 minutes, but the clips featuring a 2 foot 9 inch James Bond sporting a jet pack, or jumping out of high rise and floating down with just an umbrella, was a stand out.

This was the same year that The Chuds’ Weng Weng Rap video popped up on a nascent Youtube, also featuring loads of clips from For Y’ur Height Only and The Impossible Kid. And serendipitously, it was also the first year Aussie film enthusiast and trash scholar Andrew Leavold, embarked on a quest resulting in the documentary The Search For Weng Weng.

Scruffy and amiable, Leavold appears in the opening minutes introducing a small audience to the pleasures of Weng Weng films in Australia. His enthusiasm encapsulates that feeling of unvarnished pleasure that certain type of cinephile get from trashy grade z cinema produced anywhere in the world. The documentary, with zero pretense or production gloss, captures his investigation for answers throughout the Manila film scene, developing an empathetic tone as it goes along. It also gently begs the niggling question to the very same brand of cinephile: should we enjoy the product of so much icky politics and exploitative circumstance?

Weng Weng was born Ernesto de la Cruz into a poor family in Manila who nurtured him as a very tiny baby with medicine dropper. He died poor and rather ignobly, possibly from tainted shellfish in 1992. His gravestone is currently used to anchor laundry lines for people to dry their clothes; a practicality and reality for the area. Neither he nor his family ever saw any of the money — which would be a princely sum — that the diminutive actor’s films fetched on local and foreign markets.

The owners of LILIW Studios, Peter and Cora Caballes, are singled out as mercenary in their business practices. It is implied that after discovering young Ernesto in a martial arts dojo in the 1970s, where he was a local attraction mainly due to his size but also some real talent, they hired him to function as a comic side kick; a little bit of background colour. The Caballeses kept him, in their home, as much as a pet as an employee. There is a touch of this reflected in the films as well; in one film his micro-James Bond character is imprisoned in a bird cage.

When the Agent 00 films proved to be a popular hit and monetary windfall — one title went as far as outgrossing Raiders of the Lost Ark in a few markets — the Caballes worked him hard. Consider that there was not only zero CGI at the time, but also no stunt men of that size, so Weng Weng had to do all of his stunts in films that are wall to wall stunts. And you probably guess correctly that there was not a lot of safety oversight while these stunts were set up and performed. Weng Weng seems to have been paid only in the privilege of doing the work, and the studio mascot celebrity that resulted.

The Caballes’ line fell under the guise of ‘looking after his affairs.’ Peter would occasionally go out womanizing with Weng Weng in tow; this was more as an accessory, though. Perhaps the Weng Weng screen name came from the popular local cocktail made with rum, brandy, whiskey and pineapple juice, likely consumed while out on the town. However, even though the ladies often kissed or bedded Weng Weng in his movies, it seems that he was not afforded those privileges in real life, due to his size and circumstance.

Travelling around Manila, Leavold proves adept in his purpose, making fast friends with the colourful collection of directors, stuntmen, editors and other assorted players from the era. In drab looking shopping malls, or on outdoor stoops, they to do a lot of reminiscing about ‘the old days’ and drop the dirt on the Caballes often shaking their heads when reminiscing. The film goes one further, expanding it and contextualizing it to the business of power and politics in the Philippines and all roads lead to the long reign of Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos. Talking heads do a little high-brow pontificating about the soul of the country, and the function of a court jester to expose ills and the ugliness of the regime in a comic way.

Cora herself is now a politician of some note, and her shift from cashing in on the exploitation cinema boom to public office (where the money is equally flowing, one can guess) put Weng Weng, amongst others, out of work in the late 1980s. One might make the leap of logic that this also, indirectly, lead to the diminutive actors death. And yet, Weng Weng seemed to have enjoyed his fame both local and abroad (making it to the 1982 Cannes Film festival) and clearly looks to be having a blast in the films, so nothing here is black and white. Showbiz can be a nasty business in any culture and any time period.

If there is one big miss on this otherwise deeply engaging and thoughtful documentary, it is not getting Cora Caballes on camera. This would have been a coup of sorts and a logical climax for the film. Instead she and her playboy husband remain silent spectres of the ugliness of the business in the same fashion as the corpse of former President Marcos still sits embalmed under glass (for 20 years or so) awaiting a state funeral.

We are instead allowed to witness to the surreal 80th birthday party of Imelda Marcos. Pageantry, shaping hearts and minds, and a little bit of catholic ‘passion play’ remain a cornerstone of filipino Cultural Centre, which, not coincidentally, is run by Imelda’s daughter, Imee. Dame Imelda, ‘The Steel Butterfly,’ and her daughter prove chatty and adept on camera, and during the even, even place Leavold and his small documentary team at a table of honour. All the while telling the local media about the foreign press here to cover the big event.

The dozen or so Weng Weng films, from spaghetti westerns, to the 00 films (potentially six of them exist but only a couple are available) to various other rip-offs of money proven genres may are still vibrant to the cult of Weng Weng. For those of love the cheesy acting, off kilter narrative choices and bargain basement aesthetic of the era when Francis Ford Coppola, Roger Corman, and others were making films and pumping money into the Philippines economy for cheap access to jungle and military production value. This ground was covered with great energy and production value in Machete Maidens Unleashed! Leavold’s research contributed to Mark Hartley’s film in enough capacity to get him a Assosiate Producer credit on the 2009 documentary. But his own movie is a more intimate affair. Covering the life and legend of Weng Weng is more introspective, trashophile soul-searching and laced with a melancholy upon discovering various truths and circumstances in the young actor’s strange, wild and short life.

The Search For Weng Weng ultimately rationalizes, perhaps for the best, that these films exist regardless of the attitudes and conditions they were made under many years ago. Like Song of the South, The Sentinel, and other films that appear shockingly politically incorrect today, they still remain cultural documents of a certain time and place. People are still watching and celebrating the work, hopefully deriving these pleasures not from a pace of malice. Andrew Leavold invites us all to do the same.

Review: A Brony Tale


Director: Brent Hodge (What Happens Next? The Dan Mangan Documentary)
Screenplay: Brent Hodge
Producers: Brent Hodge, Lauren Bercovitch
MPAA Rating: NR
Running time: 79 min.

My first encounter with a Brony came out of, what seemed to me at the time, left field. John de Lancie was on stage at a convention, humorously skirting a question about some technical aspect of an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” that he shot 10 years ago, when a guy wearing a black t-shirt that read “I’m 20% Cooler” and a headband with pink fluffy ears walked up to the microphone to ask a question. De Lancie smiled when he looked over at the 20-something and when the guy asked de Lancie about Discord, the actor’s smile widened. The crowd erupted in applause, cheers and whistles and de Lancie went on to answer, at length, about his experience voicing the popular TV character. I looked over at my friend and started a conversation that went something like this:

Me: Ummmmm… Did I miss something?
Her: It’s a “My Little Pony” reference.
Me: Like the TV show I watched when I was a kid?
Her: No no. The new “My Little Pony!”
Me: There’s a new “My Little Pony?”
Her: Yeah! And it has a huge following of grown men.

The Trekkies eventually took over again but my interest had been peaked and I spent a good part of the following Monday getting myself acquainted with a fandom that, until a few days before, I hadn’t even know existed.

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Review: Life Itself


Director: Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie)
Producers: Garrett Basch, Steve James, Zak Piper
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 115 min.


I knew Roger Ebert.

I never met the man nor did we ever exchange words but I knew him. I knew the movies he liked, what filmmakers he championed and that he was willing to go out on a ledge and sometimes against the grain to support something he believed in. I also knew he grew up in a small town, loved his parents and that he was an alcoholic. I learned those last things, the really personal things, well after he had left television and illness had forced him to communicate only via the written word. Roger Ebert never stopped writing.

Steve James’ Life Itself isn’t just a documentary about a great man, and there is little doubt that Roger Ebert was a great man, but also a document of a life well lived. It’s apropos that Ebert’s life is celebrated in flickering images because they occupied so much of his life for so long. He was a great critic because he could appreciate the art of filmmaking but he was a great writer because he could articulate those ideas in simple, beautiful language.

Inadvertently, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert are responsible for a majority of today’s ardent movie lovers and critics. The internet may have given us a soapbox but Siskel and Ebert gave us the OK. Their TV show brought movies into our living rooms but more than that, they encouraged us to talk about them. They encouraged us to watch with a critical eye and to discuss the medium in a way that had, for the most part, been limited to critics. They taught us that it was OK to argue and disagree and to commiserate in movies and that they were a perfectly acceptable and more than that – a great – form of art.

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Trailer: Rich Hill

One of the more immediate and intimate case-studies of poverty in America, as well as being one of the most beautiful films of the year, Tracy Tragos and Andrew Palermo’s Rich Hill won the big Documentary prize at this years Sundance, and is getting a limited theatrical release on August 1st. The trailer underscores much of the film, as well as the complexity of life on the margins of America, as well as the clarity of the images captured by the filmmakers.

The film chronicles challenges, hopes and dreams of the three young residents Andrew, Harley and Appachey of a rural American town. There is a brief discussion of the film in the Hot Docs segment of Cinecast Episode #351