It’s hard to be objective when talking about the remarkable documentary “Life Itself” as a critic who admired it’s subject very much, the world’s most famous film aficionado Roger Ebert, as I imagine it has been for many sitting down to review this film. Director Steve James, of “Hoop Dreams” and” The Interrupters” fame, takes us through the life of Mr Ebert, but also manages to be the benefactor of opportunistic timing as he takes the audience all the way through the end of his subject’s life as well. The stories of his long lasting feud that eventually turned to friendship with co-host Gene Siskel, his public speaking and movie deconstructions along with the love of his life Chaz, who he met at 50, are all examined, but they are juxtaposed between the documenting of the final months of Ebert’s life, caught on film by James himself.
Life Itself is at times heart wrenching, inspiring and revelatory throughout the film as James never shies away from Ebert’s very combative and unlikeable side, showing us a true portrait of the entire man. Starting off as a brash, outspoken and over confident young man, who at 21 inherited his movie review column at the Chicago Sun-Times that he never let go over the next 46 years, Ebert also quickly became an out of control alcoholic. Winning his Pulitzer Prize at a young age did not help either, as James examines all this material and shows us a much darker and angry Roger Ebert, light years away from the one most of the public knew. (more…)
Originally published at Dork ShelfAfter suffering a hemorrhagic stroke, Scottish singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins ended up slipping into a coma. After waking, it was discovered quite quickly he had suffered acute aphasia, a condition that affects the brain and leads to problems using language. Other than yes and no, the only other phrases Edwyn could use were the name of his wife ‘Grace Maxwell’ and the titular ‘The Possibilities are Endless’. The film employs lush cinematography and sound design to attempt an encompassing and sensory exploration of Collins’ recovering mind through this time while also showing us where he has progressed to today.
Directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall use interviews with Collins and his wife Grace Maxwell as the narration over moving abstract imagery in the film’s first half and recovered footage of Edwyn in the latter half to guide the film. The technique works quite well as, with the film mirroring Edwyn’s own recovery and progression. The film also uses re-enactments of the couple’s courtship and life together to help illustrate what’s truly an epic love story. (more…)
Originally published at Dork ShelfLove Me examines the Ukrainian mail-order bride business (which has gotten even more lucrative in the past decade) and the single men willing to risk their money to find companionship. The film follows 6 men of varying backgrounds and motivations and examines their relationship to the industry and the women they meet. The men take trips to the Ukraine where they encounter bombshells who cut straight to the point: they each want a man serious about marriage.
The 6 guys picked as the subjects for Love Me are very strategically placed to show the whole spectrum of outcomes of Internet dating, with some successful, some taken for a ride, and one in particular that’s to be a bit of a creep, yet he blames the women for not being interested. (more…)
Originally Published at Dork ShelfJames “The Amazing” Randi is an 85-year-old magician who has been at the forefront of a movement to debunk frauds and phonies for decades. After dedicating his life to the magical arts from a very early age, Randi became a sensation mainly due to his impeccable skills as an escape artist. Randi has always referred to himself as being a “liar, cheat and charlatan.” But when the leading crusader against false propaganda is found to have been holding a secret for the past 26 years, will Randi be able to remain an honest liar?
Featuring appearances from other famous magicians, mentalists and skeptics like Penn and Teller, Banachek and Adam Savage from Mythbusters, An Honest Liar is an excellent time capsule looking at the past couple of decades of magic and deception while also proving to be a very effective character study of Randi himself. The film is buoyed by a considerable amount of archival footage that’s edited and culled together in impressive fashion. The film’s pacing is excellent and keeps the audience immersed throughout the entire running time. (more…)
Originally Published at Dork Shelf
Abkhazia is a mainly unrecognized state on the Black Sea that has claimed independence from Georgia. What used to be a frolicking beach getaway for lucky Soviets now sits in post-Communist ruin. But for Abkhazian Sports Minister Rafael everything appears to be turning around. His new young wife, Russian opera singer Natasha, gives up her home and custody of her daughter to take a chance on a new life in the country. But when the fiercely traditional locals don’t take to Natasha at all, and aren’t afraid to show it, their relationship starts to crack like the old buildings that surround them.
Domino Effect features a very static camera that doesn’t get involved with the proceedings for most of the film, something that sadly adds to its fiercely methodical pacing, making it feel much longer than its 75 minute run time. Rafael seems oblivious to the observations and conclusions of his wife, stuck in old world customs that show the vast chasm of difference between the couple. Natasha does have an epic encounter in a kitchen with a local woman after a traditional custom not being observed comes crashing down hard on her. (more…)
Originally Published at Dork Shelf
When the Belgian stage production Gardenia opened in 2010 it was a massive success: playing over 200 shows in 25 countries. The show is as much a performance art piece as it is cabaret, starring older gay and trans performers. The film follows the cast through their final performance and beyond, as they attempt to adapt and reintegrate themselves back into regular society after their final heart wrenching performance at home in Ghent.
Director Thomas Wallner has shot a gorgeous documentary (the performance pieces look outstanding), but the film seems to lack forward momentum throughout. The focus is more on performance than storytelling. These performers have led interesting lives, so the filmmakers’ choice to show us the troupe as a whole outside of the show instead of focusing on some of their stories dilutes the overall impact and leads to a very superficial account. (more…)
Originally Published at Dork Shelf
South Korean artist Hojun Song is determined to build the first civilian launched satellite. To accomplish this Hojun establishes the his own organization to fund the program. Sadly though, the only fundraising effort he undertakes is an ill-fated attempt to sell 10,000 T-Shirts with minimal advertising. The inexperienced Song then spends five years testing, tweaking, drawing up diagrams and soldering circuit boards trying to make his dream a reality.
While our protagonist is a fascinating character, driven and determined to build this satellite despite having no idea what he is doing, this a dense film. It follows the everyday carrying on of the project in all its banality, with brief interludes to talk about the botched fundraiser. The days continue to tick away until he needs to deliver the satellite (sometimes literally on screen) and he and his rag tag crew continue to crack under the pressure to deliver.
Of course nothing gets done ahead of time and he’s left scrambling to accomplish anything at all. It’s the full court press of this frantic construction in the third act, the very last days before the deadline that works best. But at an almost 2 hour run time, it’s a taxing journey just to get there.
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Its contest time here again at the FIX and here is one of 3 contests for passes to films playing at the upcoming 32nd edition of Canadian Music Week. This marks the 4th year that the festival has included films about music and the CMW programming team have delivered one of the most anticipated lineups of a festival so far this year.
With films focusing on Fela Kuti, Elliot Smith and Johnny Thunders mixed with fictional tales like the TIFF breakout “We Are the Best”, Michael Fassbender oddity “Frank” and the Jimi Hnedrix biopic “Jimi: All is by My Side” starring Outkast’s Andre Benjamin, CMW’s lineup has something to interest everybody. All films will play at the Royal Cinema.
Its contest time here again at the FIX and here is one of 3 contests for passes to films playing at the upcoming 32nd edition of Canadian Music Week. This marks the 4th year that the festival has included films about music and the CMW programming team have delivered one of the most anticipated lineups of a festival so far this year. With films focusing on Fela Kuti, Elliot Smith and Johnny Thunders mixed with fictional tales like the TIFF breakout “We Are the Best”, Michael Fassbender oddity “Frank” and the Jimi Hnedrix biopic “Jimi: All is by My Side” starring Outkast’s Andre Benjamin, CMW’s lineup has something to interest everybody. All films will play at the Royal Cinema.
Ryan is a very talented 18-year-old transgender (having just finished the main stage of his surgeries) male musician who rarely lets his acoustic guitar slip from his side. After meeting his 16-year-old girlfriend Alexis at a summer camp they both attended the year before, the pair is now virtually inseparable and they have fallen madly in love. But when Alexis’ father discovers the existence of their relationship, especially the gender status of Ryan, the pair is thrust headlong into the harsher realities of the adult world. Alexis is soon faced with the daunting task of choosing between her family and the man she loves. (more…)
It’s 2010 and indie rock band The National is set to embark on their largest international tour to date. Enter lead singer ’s younger brother Tom, a wannabe horror filmmaker with aspirations to make a documentary film about the band. Starting out with large ambition and grand ideas, and starting with Matt’s full support, it’s not long before Tom’s tour roadie position is hanging by a thread due to his constant by slacking off on the job, getting drunk and overall lack of ability. What starts out as a candid music doc ends up going in a completely different direction, delivering an earnest, behind-the-scenes look at Tom’s endeavours and subsequent departure, but the question becomes will Tom be able to salvage his film?
Mistaken for Strangers may be one of the best stories about brothers captured on film. Tom may not have started out wanting to include himself into the film, but eventually his own antics and screw ups became too difficult for the director to ignore and he discovered the real film within his footage. This discovery also plays out over the course of the film’s last act, a rare glimpse into what goes into developing a film beyond the filming stages.
A Story of Children and Film is a documentary by Mark Cousins which explores the history of cinema and the roles that child actors have had in it. The film uses an interesting approach that utilizes a magnitude of different movies dating back to the earliest era and cinema and reaching all the way across different parts of the world. Cousins also intercut footage he took of niece and nephew and contrasts it to the films he’s talking about creating the actual narrative of the documentary. Aside from the footage that he took, and a few brief shots at the end of the piece, a majority of the film is footage from other movies with Cousins narration.
The topic that the A Story of Children and Film explores is not a commonly covered one, so Cousins does a good job at breaking new ground and exploring the various aspects of it. However, the films biggest downfall is its narration which is done by the director himself. Some filmmakers can pull off narrating their own films, however Cousins done so in the most monotone way imaginable. It can only be assumed that this is done intentionally with an attempt to speak in a somewhat poetic way; however it can often feel dry and boring at times. The footage really is the essential attention grabber in the documentary, and it becomes really interesting to see how the earliest pieces of cinema have had an ever growing influence on the most modern films released. Cousins goes on to point out that cinema is one of the newest art forms and that it is almost a child itself, something not often thought about considering how young of an art form film really is. Instead of simply narrating the entire piece, real life footage of family members was used to flow from topic to topic, thus removing the choppiness that a documentary like this could have easily fallen victim to.
The underdog sports story is one of the oldest tales in film. This is the one where the athlete that nobody believed in eventually proves everyone wrong to roaring applause. Such is the true life story of professional basketball player and overnight sensation, Jeremy Lin. Lin grew up living a normal life, idolizing his favourite basketball players on TV, and mimicking their moves on the courts with his brothers. He would time and time again prove he was an exceptional player but was often passed over because he didn’t look like a traditional basketball star.
Evan Leong’s Linsanity focuses on the meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin and chronicles his early childhood memories while paralleling it with Lin’s current NBA stardom. The documentary does a great job of capturing the real Jeremy Lin, and getting a first-hand account from the star himself, which reveals the very personal and spiritual journey that the basketball sensation has been on since his youth. The strongest aspect of the film is that it doesn’t just gear itself towards basketball fans; it instead opts for a broader approach making it accessible and fun to watch for everyone. Even someone who has never sat and watched an entire basketball game will stay engaged in the film throughout. .
While training for the 2010 Winter Olympics, champion US snowboarder Kevin Pearce suffered a devastating accident on the slopes, putting him temporarily in a coma and leaving him with a debilitating brain injury. When he finally recovered both speech and mobility, Kevin shocked his supportive, tight-knit family by announcing that he wanted to return to the sport he loves—despite doctors’ warnings that even the slightest blow to the head would be enough to kill him.
The Crash Reel is an engrossing exposé on the world of extreme sports and more specifically the terrible accident and recovery of Kevin Pearce, known to his fans simply as KP, who before his tragic accident was poised to upset Shaun White for the gold in the Vancouver Olympic Games. The film follows diligently the Pearce family as they try to recover from his head injury that almost cost Kevin his life. Through practice and competitive footage, director Lucy Walker does excellent job of examining the psyche of an athlete and paints a compelling picture of the athlete and the man that Pearce would become.
Editor`s note: This marks the debut of new contributor to the site David Edwards. Hope you guys like his insight and opinion as he continues to help us out at the FIX. Welcome aboard David!
This week at the Carlton (Dec 13th-19th 2013)
The Punk Syndrome is a cinéma vérité style documentary that follows a punk rock band from Finland made up of four men with mental disabilities and the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into the process of creating music. (more…)
Originally published as part of the Bloor Cinema Column at DORK SHELF
How To Make A Book With Steidl
Meet publisher and printer Gerhard Steidl: revered and sought after worldwide for his ability to make the most exquisite art books imaginable. Using profits from his work with such long-time clients as Chanel, Günter Grass and Karl Lagerfeld, Steidl underwrites his publishing of limited edition books with the world’s best photographers. Superb cinematography frames the scenes between Steidl and the artists in action, revealing the playful, yet exacting process of their creative collaborations. Steidl is constantly in motion, travelling to London, Paris, New York, Vancouver and the deserts of Qatar, allowing us seductive glimpses into the rarely seen homes and studios of such renowned artists as Robert Adams, Robert Frank and Jeff Wall.
How To Make A Book is an intriguing portrait of a fiercely determined and his all-encompassing fascination and obsession with paper and ink (kind of like this week’s other film about Tomi Ungerer). At times a self-deprecating master schmoozer, at other times a grumpy and vindictive control freak, Steidl is never a boring character. During the course of the film we also traverse a product’s lifespan, from conceptual beginnings to the final product of Joel Sternfeld’s book i Dubai, and see how Steidl’s exacting standards, with all the bickering, infighting and frustrations included, work in driving creating and producing a unique and bold final product.
Audiences who invest in the journey and the man will be captivated and engrossed, though the film will likely be too dry and one sided for those who are turned off by Steidl’s OCD tendencies.
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Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story
Most people have encountered the work of Tomi Ungerer during some point in their lives. From his award-winning children’s books to his provocative and iconic anti-war illustrations from the 60s and 70s, his work has always had a clever, biting edge balanced with a playful fearlessness. But his outspokenness made him a target of controversy and intense malice. This became even more evident when Ungerer began to illustrate erotic books late in his career, a move that outraged fans of his earlier work and blacklisted him and his publications from most major libraries, schools and bookstores.
Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is the story of a fascinating artist who never compromised his vision even when it meant the children’s literary world completely excised him. Reminiscent of the brilliant Wayne White documentary from last year, Beauty is Embarrassing, Far Out brings us another eccentric, reformed, and solitary man who chose to step back from his limelight and accolades. While not as accomplished or engaging as the Wayne White documentary, Far Out still tells a great story. With the multitude of drawings and artwork the filmmakers have to pull from, the picture has a fantastic and vibrant look.
Fellow author the late Maurice Sendak, of Where the Wild Things Are fame, calls Ungerer one of his greatest influences. Hopefully Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is ‘far enough’ to influence a new generation to put pen to page.
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- Dragon Girls Review (Dork Shelf) (moviejunkieto.com)
Starting this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox is the new music documentary that unearths one of the most influential bands that almost nobody has ever heard of, “A Band Called Death”. The documentary boats executive producers Scott Mosier (friend and producer of Kevin Smith’s films) and Entourage’s Jerry Ferrara, which just goes to prove the vast and different influence their music has had. A band becoming a hit 30 years after recording your demo tape is a compelling and unique story, and one that has never been told on screen this way before.
A Band Called Death
Directed by Jeff Howlett, Mark Covino
Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, there was Death. Formed in the early 1970s by three teenage brothers from Detroit, Death is credited as being the first black punk band, and the Hackney brothers, David, Bobby, and Dannis, are now considered pioneers in their field. But it wasn’t until recently, when a dusty 1974 demo tape made its way out of Bobby’s attic nearly thirty years after Death’s emergence, that anyone outside a small group of punk enthusiasts had even heard of them. Equal parts electrifying rockumentary and epic family chronicle, the story of Death is one of brotherly love and fierce, divinely inspired expression.
Starting this weekend at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema is the documentary that strives to delve behind the controversy and motivations of one of the most infamous personalities involved in the activist movement over the last decade. Informant takes a spellbinding look at Brandon Darby, a radical activist turned FBI informant who has been both vilified and deified, but never fully understood.
Starring Brandon Darby
Directed by Jamie Meltzer
In 2005, Brandon Darby became an overnight activist hero when he traveled to Katrina-devastated New Orleans and braved toxic floodwaters to rescue a friend stranded in the Ninth Ward. Soon after, he became a founding member of Common Ground, a hugely successful grassroots relief organization. After two young activists were arrested at the 2008 Republican National Convention, Darby shocked close friends and activists nationwide by revealing he’d been instrumental in the indictment as an FBI informant. As the only film with access to Brandon Darby since his public confession, Informant presents his compelling journey using direct address interviews and re-enactments featuring Darby. Darby’s story is often contradicted by commentary from acquaintances and expert commentators on various points along the political spectrum. The film invites viewers to form their own opinions about Darby’s character and actions, as well as the larger political context he operates within.
Starting this week at the TIFF Bell Lightbox is the documentary that caused quite the splash at this year’s Hot Docs film festival, “Blackfish”. When director Gabriela Cowperthwaite began investigating the death of a trainer who was dragged to her death during a “Dine with Shamu” show at SeaWorld, she soon found the initial story gave way to a far more shocking and further-reaching situation that plumbed the depths of a billion-dollar industry.
Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite
A killer whale linked to three trainer deaths over two decades, Tilikum is the backbone of the story presented in Blackfish. However, Cowperthwaite discovered it wasn’t just this particular whale; there have been multiple cases of Orca attacks on trainers in parks around the world, although never in the wild. Featuring testimonies from experts and trainers, and with never-before-seen footage, (more…)
Originally published at Dork Shelf
The Tagu Kung Fu School is located right next to the Shaolin Temple Monastery (the birthplace of the famed martial art) and is home to over 20,000 students. Dragon Girls follows three young female students at the school, living far away from their homes and families. They sacrifice the luxuries of childhood like days off, playtime and seeing their parents for the honor, respect and skill they will gain from their training. The physical and mental exhaustion and constant drive for perfection weigh heavily on the young warriors as they learn to cope with constant pressure to perform from every corner.
It’s easy to tell why director Inigo Westmeier has chosen her three subjects, as they run the spectrum of the students at the school. There’s the nine year old prodigy, whose father will only visit if she wins first place. Then there are the two teenagers, one who still tries hard every day but is just not as gifted as the rest, and the other, a returned run away from the school who doesn’t want to be there. Through the lives of these girls, and several others, we see the almost cult like attitude that the school fosters in their pupils. It’s a fascinating watch, and the girls are engaging onscreen presences.
The living quarters are in near squalor and the kids sleep in bunks beds with double digit roommates in each room. They are allowed to shower only twice a week and have to resort to a bucket and a tap at the end of corridor to scrub clean each morning. But the dedication to their craft of martial arts carries them through.
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- ‘Pacific Rim’ Review (Dork Shelf) (moviejunkieto.com)
- ‘Deceptive Practice’ immerses us in the magical world of Ricky Jay (moviejunkieto.com)
- ‘The Act of Killing’ is a gut-wrenching 2 hours of cinema (moviejunkieto.com)
- Despicable Me 2 Review (Kirk Haviland) (entertainmentmaven.com)
Starting this past weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox is one of the most controversial documentaries of the year, “The Act of Killing”. The film follows around a group of killers, that have somehow become revered figures in their native Indonesia, as they relate their stories of death and mayhem with grins and smiles upon their faces as hey reminisce about the ‘good old days’ when they were responsible for the death of thousands.
The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer
After the 1965 military coup against the Sukarno government, Indonesia was overrun by marauding bands of paramilitaries who indulged in the mass murder of more than one million alleged communists. These victims included ethnic Chinese and intellectuals and left behind a horrifying record of atrocities that, ironically, has enshrined these killers in their nation’s history as patriotic heroes. Director Joshua Oppenheimer and his collaborators provocatively explore this dark chapter of Indonesia’s history by enlisting a group of former paramilitaries to re-enact their crimes in the style of the Hollywood films that they love. Gleefully recreating some of the many murders they have committed with the aid of sets, costumes and pyrotechnics, the proud band of killers exhibits a fixation on style over substance — as well as an utter lack of remorse over their actions — that is both monstrous and mesmerizing.
Starting this weekend at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema is the new documentary about the unsung heroes of the filmmaking process, the casting director, and the impact and evolution of the craft, “Casting By”. The film also serves to tell the story of the most influential and famous members of the casting world Marion Dougherty. In December of 2011, the film industry sadly lost Marion Dougherty and though most film fans would not recognize her by name; her work revolutionized the acting and casting industry.
Directed by Tom Donahue
Dougherty began her career as a casting agent in the 50s for a collection of New York based TV shows, including the Kraft Television Theatre, Route 66 and Naked City. During the studio era of film making that lasted into the early 60’s, casting was done by surveying the usual crop of studio-signed actors who were often given roles based upon their looks and personality versus their talent. However, Dougherty recognized that there was a large pool of actors in New York’s off-Broadway productions and acting schools and was the first person to cast unknown actors based upon character instead of appearance. But perhaps the best treat in this revelatory film is the massive collection of footage, screen tests and movie clips featuring legendary actors such as James Dean, Christopher Walken, Jon Voight and Maureen Stapleton, before their fame.
Originally Published at DORK SHELF
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Deceptive Practice is a journey into the realm of modern magic with the multitalented Ricky Jay, a world-renowned magician, author, historian and actor. Touted as one of magic’s greatest, Jay is dedicated to researching, teaching, performing and perfecting his craft. Magicians would normally be reluctant to let their secrets out, let alone allow a documentary crew to peek behind their velvet curtain, but Jay allows directors Molly Bernstein and Alan Edelstein to do just that. (more…)