Trailer: Long Strange Trip

There are too many mediocre music docs. This is definitely NOT one of those. Amazon Prime financed Amir Bar-Lev’s epic four-hour Grateful Dead documentary, which was built almost entirely out of unearthed archived video. And if you have seen the official Grateful Dead archive, it looks (I’m not kidding) a lot like that Area 51 matte painting in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Long Strange Trip starts out when Jerry Garcia is a teenager, and ends with his death in 1995, and in between it (somehow) acts as both a primer for novices, and a very specific set of images and information for experts. I caught it at Hot Docs and it played like gangbusters with an enthusiastic (and greying) crowd. Also, the bands first Tour Manager has a voice that is dead-on Michael Caine, so even in the talking heads segments you are in good hands.

The 30-year odyssey of the Grateful Dead was the most unlikely success story in rock ’n’ roll history. Famously averse to publicity and seemingly incapable of recording radio-friendly hits, they flouted music-industry convention by giving their live music away to a global network of tape traders and becoming the highest-grossing concert act in America through word of mouth alone.

Long Strange Trip is the first full-length documentary to explore the fiercely independent vision, perpetual innovation, and uncompromising commitment to their audience that made the Bay Area band one of the most influential musical groups of their generation. Artfully assembling candid interviews with the band, road crew, family members and notable Deadheads (including Minneapolis Senator Al Frankin), director Bar-Lev reveals the untold history of the Dead and the freewheeling psychedelic subculture that sprouted up around it. The film also provides poignant insight into the psyche of late lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, whose disdain for authority clashed with his de facto leadership of the sprawling collective that kept the show on the road.

With a soundtrack that captures some of the band’s most dynamic live performances as well as unguarded offstage moments and never-before-seen interviews, footage and photos, Long Strange Trip explores the Dead’s singular experiment in radically eclectic music making. Much more than the “behind the music” backstory of an exceptionally talented and beloved group of musicians, the film is at once an inspiring tale of unfettered artistic expression, a heartfelt American tragedy, and an incisive history of the rise and fall of 20th-century counterculture.

Amazon Studios is giving the film a limited release in NY & LA on May 26th, and across the country in select theaters for single night playdates, but if you have Amazon Prime, Long Strange Trip will be available worldwide on that streaming platform on June 2nd.

Hot Docs 2017 Review: Shiners


 

Opting for nothing less than an examination of the purpose and philosophy of 21st century labour – in short, how and why do we work in an era of automation and disposable consumerism? – Stacey Tenenbaum’s re-evaluation of the humble shoe shiner smashes any and all Dickensian or Jim Crow notions of the trade with smiles and (mostly joyful) tears.

She travels the globe, from Times Square to La Paz, Bolivia and from Sarajevo to Etobicoke to assess the evolution of the most local of services: cleaning and burnishing shoe leather in a public space. Shiners addresses socioeconomic hot buttons issues of the day, such as race, class, ecology, automation of labour, addiction, politics and human dignity. But, it is first and foremost a character study in a waning trade that has always attracted interesting characters. Combine this with Van Royko’s low-f-stop cinematography and you almost smell the oil, leather, and Kiwi.

Tactile close-ups of fingers and cloth, skin on skin, are mixed with medium shots to emphasize the ‘power-difference’ between the person ‘in the chair’ (which is not always a literal chair) and the shiner, which the film then smoothly undoes. Finally, a healthy mix of wide shots to show their labour employed inside the context of their city. Shiners has a craftswoman’s ebb and flow as Tenenbaum effortlessly flits back and forth across their stories.

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Hot Docs 2017 Review: PACmen


 

How many people have selfies taken with Dr. Ben Carson on their phones that they will probably never look at again? For a few shining moments, the former neurosurgeon whose stab-to-scalpel story was adapted into a television movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., was an outsider-candidate for the U.S. Republican presidential ticket in 2015.

This stemmed from a promising keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, where Carson brazenly lectured President Obama on the moral decay of America, as Obama sat ten feet away. It is fitting that his political potential started with prayer, as PACMen shares the story ‘Run Ben Run’ from the inside.

As Donald Trump often blathers, “America does not like losers,” And while the orange authoritarian bafflingly blazed his way through the primaries and election cycle to the highest political office in the world, he was right in this case — outside of a small political bubble, Dr. Carson was exactly and going to be always that, one of politics’ many losers.

Aussie director Luke Walker has unprecedented access to Carson’s Political Action Committee, “Extraordinary America,” (in common parlance, a super-PAC), the body of wealthy evangelical Christians and Tea Party-ers who are responsible, in a large way, for getting Carson to run for the Republican nomination, and also handled the logistical and financial details of his ‘ground game’ in the early state primaries. Walker structures his film between the nuts and bolts of running a behind the scenes political leadership race with Dr. Carson’s ill-informed, often outright goofy series of blunders in front of the news cameras on the national stage.

Your ability to catch the vibe that Walker seems to be laying out with PACmen — decidedly Christopher Guest but for real this time — might depend on your penchant for schadenfreude. At the beginning of the many conference calls and hotel-ballroom meetings, there is a collective prayer for success that often gets hyper-specific: “Let us pray that the liberal biased media stop attacking Ben.” This is amusing in and of itself, if not for the dramatic irony that they are being filmed by a director who has structured a vision of their worst fears into a divine comedy. For PACmen is a story of faith and hubris and unintended hilarity, writ large.

As the numbers of the campaign, both the fundraising, and the chances of securing the number of delegates required to win primaries, approach ‘mathematical zero,’ Carson fails to concede to reality and keeps running. Behind the scenes, the prayers are amplified. The old white guys with bluetooth headsets and ornately carved wooden desks, including Jeff D. Reeter (owner of said desk), Terry Giles and John Philip Souza IV increasingly grasp at a miracle. A volunteer helpfully offers, “God is in the business of miracles.” Meanwhile, the media is in the business of calling out ridiculousness for what it is. To be fair, it seems increasingly to be the late night talk shows shouldering this responsibility over the cable news networks.

The will to laugh at shenanigans and cluelessness, however, may be tested as you see the on-the-ground staffers, volunteers and believers slowly get fired as the Carson campaign wheezes to an ignoble end and the Super-PAC might secretly realize that backing a certain horse after really only one convincing speech might have been a bit presumptuous, although I am unsure if presumptuous is a word in the vocabulary of people who exist in the extreme subsets of American politics. (Notably, Carson ended up in government after all, bizarrely; he endorsed the candidate far outside his values, and was made Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for his political endorsement, praise be to God!)

PACmen espouses the truism that someone cannot pray their way into power — especially if they pontificate on national television that the Egyptian pyramids were built by the Jews for grain storage. Carson had a penchant for demonstrating a woeful lack of foreign policy knowledge, and he combined it with a quiet perplexity, most tellingly demonstrated when he missed his queue to take the stage at a national debate, and looked the nonplussed fool in doing so. Trump managed to make a greater share of policy and political gaffes and scandals (minus the pyramids), but it was his brand, and by owning it, he waltzed straight into office to the profound disappointment of the evangelical Right.

Reality management, a time honoured political endeavour, and faith (also) collapse under the hard light of scrutiny, and the sharp blade of comedy and wit, the very Judas that the Carson campaign labelled as Ted Cruz, was actually the Australian filmmaker hanging about and quietly capturing comedy gold.

Hot Docs 2017 Review: 78/52


 
 
Director: Alexandre O. Phillipe (Doc of the Dead, The People vs. George Lucas)
A Documentary on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, specifically the shower scene.
Producers: Kerry Deignan Roy, Robert Muratore
Starring: Walter Murch, Elijah Whood, Karyn Kusama, Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman, Jamie Lee-Curtis
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 129 min.

 

 

My original posting of this review can be found at TheMatinee.ca

 


In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller PSYCHO redefined the horror landscape.

In the process of bringing his cinematic vision to life, Hitchcock was afforded a whopping seven days to film the iconic shower scene. From the moment the shower faucet is turned on to the moment the Marion Crane meets her fate, a mere 146 seconds pass. In two minutes and twenty-six seconds, there are 78 setups and 52 cuts.

78/52 is an examination of that incredible cinematic execution, the psychology at play, and how it affected pop culture for years to come.

Throughout the doc, PSYCHO’s shower scene is broken down detail by detail – including precisely which melon was used to create the sound effect of the knife stabbing the skin. Artists and fans of all sorts discuss the impact and psychology of the work, all in tones that are equal parts reverie and delight.

There is an inherent joy in seeing the talent gathered for 78/52 just watch PSYCHO. Elijah Wood, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Guillermo del Toro are but a few of the fans that gather for the documentary. Repeatedly, the documentary pauses for a moment, and we can see studious delight on their famous faces as they watch Hitchcock’s twisted tale unfold before their eyes.

PSYCHO is a film about coveting through watching. So, what about it do these fans covet? What, in turn, do we?

The temptation with a documentary like this is to geek-out a little too hard. Hitchcock is a master who has inspired volumes. His works have been broken down frame-by-frame and studied to the enth degree. Could there possibly be more to say? Well yes, as it turns out.

As we close in on sixty years past the PSYCHO’s release, it’s easy to take for granted the films place in the lexicon. Like STAR WARS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and JAWS, PSYCHO has become “something other”. It is a touchstone, cinematic shorthand, something people know even if they don’t know – but there’s the rub. So very many now do not know PSYCHO. With that in mind, the time is right to examine the work, and concentrate so much time on the most iconic scene in this truly iconic work.

For films like 78/52, the trick is to find the sweet spot. Remind people of things they may have heard before, bring ideas to the table that few may have considered, and wrap it all up with talk of impact and legacy on works that would follow. If the film doesn’t do enough, it gets met with a shrug. If the film does too much, it loses the audience. The happy medium is about as wide as a knife’s edge.

Happily, 78/52 knows just how to wield that knife.

Hot Docs 2017 Review: The Road Movie

If you have spent any time lost in the YouTube wormhole, and we all have, you have probably seen some of the car accident footage that has been uploaded and archived by witnesses, usually from cheap cameras mounted at the front windshield of their cars. It might surprise you (or maybe not, if you are a Reddit regular) that the vast majority of these clips come from Eastern Europe, mainly Russia. Why?

Director Dimitrii Kalashnikov opined at the Q&A of the film that trust is not a big thing in Russian public life, and more than half of Russian drivers have dash mounted cameras to avoid situations of other drivers lying about what happened, and also rampant police corruption.

The tagline for The Road Movie, a sumptuously curated and exquisitely edited collection of dash camera footage is “Everything can happen on Russian Roads,” and for 67 white knuckle minutes, he more than makes the case that the Russian (and surrounding regions of Belarus, Serbia and Bosnia) sense of humour about such absurdity is a remarkable one. In spite of all the crazy ass driving, coldly observed in wide-angle static single takes (the nature of the medium) — high speed roll-overs, road rage fist fights, head on collisions and several very likely fatal situations — the Slavic sensibility towards all this adrenaline pumping madness, is that of casual nonchalance. Shock is one thing, this is something else entirely: a cultural touchstone.

We rarely see the passengers in the cars, but we hear their reactions, and we see other witnesses in other cars or pedestrians on the street. Take an incident where a five tonne dump-truck goes up on two wheels and capsizes over a city curb. All the while, a posh woman in a white parka sporting a designer purse takes notes of this incredibly vivid occurrence, but then casually crosses the intersection on the walk signal (two crossings) and goes on with her life.

In another clip, we hear two men question what is the cause of thunderous rumbling before we see a tank roll out from behind a building. The reaction is the equivalent to ‘you have got to be shitting me…is it ours?’ When the see the tank is in fact rolling up to the public carwash for a power-scrub, it is ‘fuck this country.’ Laid-back Russian pop music grooves in the background.

What sets The Road Movie from just a simple YouTube super-cut is that Kalashnikov has a sense of timing, and a bigger story than just action and mayhem (although there is plenty of both). He has a way of trimming the found footage to precisely calibrated lengths and in effect, to have a conversation with the audience.

Each ‘single take scenario’ has a set-up, an incident, and a resolution, but the way they are assembled (like a good album) set a rhythm that keeps the audience on their toes, seek and searching around the frame at the beginning, will this be a fist fight story or a spectacular car crash? Just when you have a handle on things, he will hit you with a rapid montage, a flurry of stuff, and transition to a wedding gone wrong, a mentally unstable person jumping on the hood of the car, or a litany of other ‘stranger than fiction moments.’ The often incongruous audio, be it song or conversation, sets its own comedic soundtrack.

While the assembly is not quite as ambitious or ambiguous as last year’s other YouTube found footage psychology experiment, Fraud, it is far more hella-entertaining. Where else would you have up-close video of the massive meteorite that rocked Chelyabinsk in 2013 bumping up against a man pulling a sledge hammer out of his trunk to get another driver to move his car, or an epic boreal forest fire filmed from the inside?

I learned the wide variety of situations Russians can mould the word “BITCH” to suit, and that in spite of all the violence that happens on the byways of Russian life, the people have a no-fuss way to recover and move on, that is utterly at odds with the West. But I would certainly think twice about renting a car and hitting the open road in the world’s largest country, at least not unless I was hoping to be in the sequel.

One final note, I am sure that the collective effect of The Road Movie is amplified by seeing it on the big screen, where one’s eyes (and head) have to more actively scan the screen. Oscilloscope Pictures has picked up the 67 minute film, and hopefully will put it out in limited release. If you are not of the faint of heart, you had best seek this one out at a festival or moviehouse for the maximum experience.

Blu-Ray Review: The Creeping Garden

Directors: Tim Grabham, Jasper Sharp
Starring: Mark Pagnell, Heather Barnett, Bryn Dentinger
Country: UK
Running Time: 84 min
Year: 2014
BBFC Certificate: E


Although they’re both documentaries, I couldn’t have picked a more different film than The Creeping Garden to follow up Gleeson to watch and review. Where the latter was a moving, very human film made up from raw, home movie style footage, The Creeping Garden is an unusual, cerebral and stylish affair. As such it was a bit of a shock to the system, and I still haven’t quite settled my thoughts on it in my mind. I’ll give it a go here though as I write my review.

Co-directed by Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp (who I’ve met a couple of times through a festival I help organise), The Creeping Garden is a documentary that explores the study of plasmodial slime mould. It sounds like an unusual and dull subject for a feature length documentary, but although I’d agree that it’s unusual, there’s more to slime moulds than you might imagine. Although they look like and were originally classified as fungi, they are in fact organisms which can move, eat and have a surprising level of intelligence for their appearance.

The film interviews and looks at the work of a number of scientists, amateur enthusiasts, musicians and artists who all deal with or take inspiration from slime moulds. As such, the film is almost about them as much as it is about slime moulds. A little like Room 237, part of the hook of the film is how unusual the work is from this incredibly niche group of people and how deeply they delve into it. The studies here are less crackpot than those of Room 237 though of course, so the filmmakers are in no way poking fun at or exploiting the strange habits of these slime mould experts. In fact Grabham and Sharp seem as interested and obsessed as they are, as the camera thrives on shots of the organisms.

Would you like to know more…?

Review: Gleason

Director: J. Clay Tweel
Screenplay: J. Clay Tweel
Starring: Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Scott Fujita
Country: USA
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 2016
BBFC Certificate: 15


About a year ago I guested on the LAMBcast for one of their Roll Your Own Top 5 episodes and I presented my list of the ‘Top 5 Films to Make a Grown Man Cry’. It consisted of five films I found particularly emotional, spurred on by the fact that since becoming a father three years ago I’ve found myself crying during films a lot more than I used to. Since making that list I haven’t got any less soft, but I have seen a couple of films that would easily muscle their way onto it. One was A Monster Calls, which had the whole cinema sniffling away from start to finish, and the other was this, J. Clay Tweel’s documentary Gleason.

Gleason tells the story of Steve Gleason, a former professional American football player who found fame for blocking a punt in the team’s first home game after Hurricane Katrina, a game that became a symbol of recovery in New Orleans. In 2011, a couple of years after he retired from playing professionally, Steve was diagnosed with having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a brutal disease that causes the death of neurons which control voluntary muscles. This results in difficulty in speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing, meaning that sufferers’ life expectancy is usually around only 2-5 years.

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Trailer: The Lure

One of my favourite films on the festival circuit last year, from Sundance to Toronto After Dark, was the debut feature from Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska. It is a thoroughly unorthodox adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, retold as a 1980s period musical, with a healthy dose of blood and drugs and sex.

A literal, fish-out of water tale, set it in a burlesque club in 1980s Warsaw. A family of musicians, whose main gig is to play back-up for the strippers at a night-club, discover two mermaids in the water while drinking and singing on the beach. They bring them aboard as part of their act, sort of like adopting two new children, and drop them right in to soft-core sex trade. What could possibly go wrong?

My review is here. Check out the trailer below.

Trailer: I Am Not Your Negro

One of the most acclaimed documentaries on the 2016 festival circuit was Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro. Along with OJ: Made In America, you have probably seen it pop up on many Top 10 lists. After seeing the trailer, I can certainly see why. Immediately engrossing, confrontational, and very, very sharp, I am eagerly anticipating February 3rd, when it gets its full theatrical release.

Based on American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” (written through 1980s prior to his death in 1987) and narrated by actor Samuel L. Jackson, the film explores the history of race relations in the United States through Baldwin’s reminiscences of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People’s Choice Award in the documentary category.