Tag Archives: documentaries

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado

Why watch a documentary about a man you’ve never heard of? Do you really need to learn “more” when you know nothing?

To be fair: millions of people DO know his name. He was the world’s #1 astrologer for decades, but because he broadcasted mostly in Spanish, he never made it into my home or into my cultural lexicon (and to be super fair, I can’t name a single English or French speaking one either; astrology just isn’t my thing).

Whether you know his name or not, you should probably check out this documentary. He is indeed a curious character. Lin-Manuel Miranda describes him as dramatic and fabulous, and in Mercado’s case, those are vast understatements.

Androgynous? Asexual? Those are not words people used in Puerto Rico in 1969, when he got his start, nor are they words Walter Mercado uses even today. Labels? He’s not above them – he’s beyond them. Today Mercado resembles a cross between Julie Andrews, Joan Rivers, and Sean’s recently deceased Granny. His wardrobe isn’t so much a cross between Liberace and Elvis as a one-upmanship of both, with a touch of Siegfried & Roy, and a cape collection that would make Lando Calrissian cry. He admits to “a little arrangement” when it comes to plastic surgery, and some botox “like Nicole Kidman.”

Mercado has an origin story to rival a super hero’s, a primo sidekick in faithful assistant Willy (who warns us not to get too bitchy with him), a legendary catch phrase, and a super power. Unfortunately, he’s also got a nemesis because every story worth telling has a villain. And if Walter has a kryptonite, it would be trust.

Trusting his business manager Bill Bakula was his downfall. They battled in court rather than in Gotham, but there were hits, there were injuries, there was damage. Neither had a mother named Martha.

At times known as a miracle-worker, a magician, a psychic, and a sorcerer, most remember him simply as a source of inspiration. Mercado knew there was power in positivity and his horoscopes gave people a reason to believe in themselves. His fandom has keenly felt his absence and many in the community would champion a reboot of the Mercado franchise but not all super heroes are meant to rise again (especially not when their jewel-encrusted capes weigh more than 30lbs).

This is a fascinating documentary, well told, and well worth the time. Mercado is quite a character, and if he is a Hispanic hero, this movie is his legacy.

Father Soldier Son

Let’s be real: this documentary is a super duper emotional watch.

We’re going to get to know the Eisch family over the next decade of their lives, but when we meet them, dad Brian is deployed to Afghanistan while sons Isaac, 12, and Joey, 7, live with uncle Shawn since their mother is out of the picture. The kids are proud of their dad, they think of him as a super hero, but they not only miss him, they worry about him. They’re young but they understand the consequences of his job.

In fact, Brian does return injured. He nearly lost his leg, so the dad they get back is not the same one that left them. He can’t do the camping and fishing and outdoorsy stuff that they used to enjoy together, but he’s also struggling just to be a loving and attentive father. War sucks.

Brian is lucky; besides having some very helpful relatives, he finds love again, a saintly and patient woman who’s willing to abide his mood swings and care for his children as she cares for her own. Brian’s pain is such that he finally agrees to an amputation, but healing post-surgery isn’t as swift as he’d hoped and his prosthetic the answer to all his problems. As depression sets in, a war video game becomes his sole focus. Brian is grappling with his new limitations and his sons are adapting to a family constantly reacting to the aftershocks of war.

Directors Catrin Einhorn and Lesley Davis capture some truly stunning and intimate family moments. Brian of course goes through some major transformations mentally and physically, but I found the young sons to be much more compelling. And remember: we’re with them for an entire decade. We literally watch them grow up, something they perhaps do a little too quickly. Juvenile ideals of patriotism and valour melt into questioning the real cost of war and whether it’s really worth it. As hard as it is to hear a 7 year old say “You shot my dad, I kill you,” it’s even harder to watch him learn the true meaning of sacrifice.

The Eisch home matches their wardrobe completely: plaid and American flags adorn both. Brian coaches his sons to “be tough” and to hold back their tears. Meanwhile, he’s wrestling with his own sense of masculinity, purpose, and self-determination. He’s a third generation soldier who’s no longer mission ready. Is the fourth generation destined to walk in his boots, or has this family paid enough?

This family portrait is painted with generational tragedy but it’s not asking for sympathy. It’s serving real, raw moments of joy and sorrow and we are their solemn witness.

The Crimson Wing

The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos sounds like it might be a classy film noir detective story from the 1940s where everyone smokes and matchbooks are almost always a clue. It’s not. It’s an early (2008) Disneynature documentary, before they developed the simple titling system that created such gems as “Bears” and “Penguins.” Today’s Disneynature docs are slick affairs, incredible photography paired with an anthropomorphic narrative that makes it fun to follow, and the big-name celebrity lending their voice sure doesn’t hurt.

But while The Crimson Wing is still working out this recipe for success, it’s still a pretty good watch.

Lake Natron in northern Tanzania is quite unique. Its water can often reach the same alkaline levels of pure ammonia. Thanks to a nearby volcano, a sodium crust forms on its surface. This is where a million crimson-winged flamingos are born (or lesser flamingos, if you will), live, and die, and have done so for nearly 20 million years. It’s a dramatic and unforgiving landscape. The salt builds up around little baby ankles, like shackles, that perilously slow them down, or shuts them down altogether (yeah, dead baby birds, it’s rough).

But the drive to stay alive and thrive is innate in all of us, and these flamingos aren’t chicken. They’ve kept the species going this long, hardship is in their blood, and the presence of a few cameras isn’t going stop them from living life. This is a rarely-photographed slice of Africa, a vast area of little besides drying salt that often gets left off even maps. But Disney gives us a bird’s eye view (ew, pun), and if you’re willing to tolerate the agonizing stamping out of the fuzziest, downiest life you’ve ever seen, young, hopeful little creatures who keep persevering long after being left behind, defying the odds, the predators, the searing heat – all just to succumb to salt accumulation around their dainty little ankles. If nature is the mob, then salt is the cement shoes, and soon their fluffy little bodies become just another bump in the road.

All right, enough moaning. I understand that death is part of life (sound like bullshit to anyone else?) and blah blah blah, why be upset about this one headstrong, floofy little chick when heavy rains literally washed out every egg in the nesting grounds so that the crew had to sit around on their own butts waiting for the flamingos to breed again.

People who live out in these crazy conditions for years at a time just to get one perfect shot of an innocent baby’s last breath must be a special kind of nut. We call them documentary film makers, but that’s definitely a euphemism for nut. And it’s not just because they used both snowshoes and hovercrafts to get around (although: nutty), it’s more that when the nearby volcano erupted during filming, they described it as “fortunate” when literally everyone else on the planet would have gone the other way on that one.

Anyway, the flamingos remain dignified even while being scrutinized by nuts, proving that whoever called them lesser got it wrong.

Athlete A

USA Gymnastics knew that Dr. Larry Nassar was routinely and repeatedly sexually assaulting the many young girls in his care. They knew and they did nothing. They knew and the covered it up. They knew and they kept him in the position, kept sending child gymnasts to him, kept inviting him into their midst. They had a duty to protect their young charges. They had a duty, morally and legally, not only to remove him, but to report him to the police. Rather than doing so, they continued to feed victims into the hands of a known pedophile.

In Jon Stewart’s recent political satire Irresistible, he talks a bit about about the pundit economy, how the news has largely been replaced by talking head opinion. These aren’t journalists, not by a long shot, but they sit behind anchor desks as if they are, injecting issues with their own agendas. It’s a dangerous trend, especially when you consider it took reporters from the Indianapolis Star to expose these crimes and trigger a police investigation. Once the newspaper made the allegations public, women started coming forward. In droves. Hundreds. Newspapers are nearly extinct, but can we afford to lose the last few people dedicated digging for truth and informing the people?

Because USA Gymnastics was never going to do the right thing. In fact, they’d fostered a culture of abuse with coaches like Bela Karolyi who believed dominating and terrorizing young gymnasts was the key to success. USA Gymnastics wasn’t just looking the other way, it was enabling abusers and suppressing evidence because that’s how they kept the sponsorship dollars rolling in.

This is a difficult film to watch, obviously. But directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk deliver on a sense of hope, too. And hope? She’s female. Called Athlete A in the documents, in court, woman after woman stood up, identified themselves, and spoke to the man who’d abused them, and to the judge who would sentence him. And also to all of us. They showed us there is power and dignity in being able to name the crime, and the perpetrator. It takes real courage to do that, but it made me want that same thing for every woman. Many, many, many sexual assault victims don’t get justice. They don’t speak up because they don’t feel they can. Or they are not believed. It took years for these gymnasts to see their day in court, but isn’t justice the very least we can do for these victims?

A Lego Brickumentary

Jason Bateman gets the mini fig treatment, and as the documentary’s narrator, he helps us discover aspects of the Lego culture we’ve perhaps not before considered.

I mean, someone has. Definitely not me. But someone. I grew up in a house of women; we were four sisters, close enough in age to swap clothes, braid each other’s hair, and influence each other’s tastes in movies and music and books. Eventually we got it into our pony-tailed heads to put Legos on our Christmas lists, not much caring who received the list as our entire basement was a communal playroom. But instead we got more Barbies. We had, literally, hundreds of Barbies. We had so many Barbies that we’d often get repeats of the same ones – we’d call them “the twins” or “the triplets” and carry on as usual. We loved Barbies. But we never got any Legos.

I didn’t really discover Legos until my oldest nephew was old enough to play with them. And by old enough, I mean old enough to last about four seconds before wandering away, leaving his dad to complete the project, who was the one who really wanted them in the first place. Sean would linger for an hour in the Lego aisle, sizing up each kit, weighing the options. I remembered Legos as a massive pile of plastic bricks to dump over your living room floor, from which to build the blueprints in your mind. But the Lego aisle of the past decade tells a different story: boxes with exactly the parts necessary to build the project illustrated on the cover, many of them heavily licensed to appeal to children. And many of them not. Lego has discovered a second crucial customer base: adults! My nephew’s dad, and Sean – they’re not outliers. Adults make up such a large portion of Lego’s customers they even have their own acronym: AFOL, adult fan of Lego. These are the people splashing out serious cash: $350 for 3898 pieces of Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium; $400 for an authentic replica on a 1:8 scale of a Bugatti Chiron; $900 for a massive 7541 piece Millennium Falcon. People love the zen aspect of following precise instructions, but lots of AFOLs are building outside the box too, exhibiting their impressive creations at Lego conventions or submitting them to Lego to win the chance to see their design reproduced and sold in stores.

Whether you played with them as a kid or as an adult, or merely browsed them endlessly as an aunt who cares, Lego has maintained their hold as a top toy for decades. But they’ve transcended toy stores, they’ve been used in art and architecture, we’ve seen them in movies and museums. And now we can celebrate them in this Amazon Prime documentary too.

Tell us about your own Lego projects: do you like Technic, Creator sets, or licensed stuff? Have you built the Death Star, the Taj Mahal, the Simpsons living room?

The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story

By the early 1980s, Queen was one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world. Their set at the 1985 Live Aid concert is basically the most significant live performance of all time. Queen meaning Roger Taylor on drums, Brian May on guitar, John Deacon on bass, and Freddie Mercury on piano and vocals. Mercury was a flamboyant showman on the stage, an inimitable presence with an incredible voice. When he died in 1991, the band more or less died with him; his bandmates were his friends, and they needed to mourn him away from the music.

I can’t remember when I was first aware of Queen because I was born into a world already obsessed with them. I remember being in my mom’s van and hearing the telltale bassline of Under Pressure and being mad, SO mad, when it turned out to be “that old song” by Queen, and not Ice Ice Baby by Vanilla Ice, a flash in the pan hip-hop monstrosity that sampled from Queen/David Bowie without crediting them. Imagine being disappointed by Under Pressure. Imagine. I have been atoning for that musical folly ever since.

I have probably never been to a hockey game that didn’t play We Will Rock You at least 5 times. As a kid I probably thought it was specifically written for hockey. But in 1992 the band got an even bigger boost from a different Canadian export, Mike Myers. Wayne’s World was released just a few months after Mercury’s (AIDS-related) death, and the studio begged Myers to go with a Guns N Roses instead, but Myers was insistent. The film propelled Bohemian Rhapsody to #2 on the charts 17 years after its first release. Mercury saw the head banging scene before his death, found it hilarious, and approved the song for the film’s use. It was a nice way for new fans and old fans to appreciate Queen once again. Just two months later, in April 1992, the remaining Queen members put on a benefit, The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, to which 1.2 billion viewers tuned in (they made the Guinness Book of Records!). Performers including Robert Plant, Elton John, Annie Lennox, George Michael, and David Bowie performed alongside the original members, and they raised over £20M for AIDS charities.

This would prove a wise and prophetic move: Queen never tried to replace the irreplaceable Freddie Mercury. When they were ready to perform again, they performed as Queen + ________. John Deacon retired in 1997, but a new Greatest Hits (III) album was released in 1999, Queen + Wyclef Jean on Another One Bites the Dust, George Michael on Somebody to Love, and Elton John on The Show Must Go On (among others). And beginning in 2005, they toured + Paul Rodgers. Fans could enjoy the music they loved without feeling their Mercury had been replaced. May and Taylor could play again, in tribute to their friend of course, but also because this was their music too, their passion.

In 2011, Queen began playing with American Idol loser, Adam Lambert (that year’s winner, Kris Allen, has long since been forgotten – the show has a pretty crummy record: out of 17 seasons, only 2 early winners ever had any lasting success, Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood). But Queen knew a winner when it saw one.

This documentary covers a lot of ground. A LOT. But it’s Queen, so let’s gobble it up. And it’s kind of cool that this iconic band, now consisting of two aging rock stars, can see in Lambert a little bit of their old friend. Adam Lambert is himself a flamboyant showman, but he doesn’t invite comparison to Mercury, which is what makes this union work. He is a confident performer in his own right, and May and Taylor seem re-energized in rediscovering their old hits with him, old hits that, like me, Lambert has grown up just knowing. And though he’s also passionate about his solo work, Lambert knows what a huge opportunity this is, how lucky he is to perform to arenas filled with people. But most of all, it’s just cool to see how things have changed, from Freddie Mercury’s deathbed confession of AIDS, to Lambert being able to perform as an openly gay man. Many great bands continue to tour long past their prime, eventually becoming a sort of cover band of themselves. Queen, however, has lasted because it’s been open to change, it has evolved. They never wallpapered over their past. They knew they had a once in a lifetime thing with Freddie, but they also admit they’ve somehow found it again with Lambert.

Can’t get enough? Join the conversation on Youtube!




Disclosure: Trans Lives On Screen

Disclosure gives us an in-depth look at Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people and the impact those stories have had not just on a transgender lives but on American culture as a whole.

Director Sam Feder puts together a documentary of enormous value, not just because of the breadth and depth of its interview subjects (actors certainly, but also historians, researchers, activists and more) but because this film acts as a valuable resource for cis-gendered people to learn and reflect more on the topic without burdening the trans community. Often we lean on minority communities to teach us how to value and respect them when we should be doing the work ourselves. Feder has generously accounted for our laziness and apathy and has made this easily-digested anthology on trans representation widely available through Netflix. No excuses: just watch it.

Let trans people tell you how it’s felt to grow up watching what few transgendered roles there are be of trans people being trafficked, raped, beaten, and murdered. And yet still they were grateful just to know that somewhere out there, someone else felt like them. Or what it’s like to see cis-gendered people playing trans-gendered characters, perpetuating the notion that some sort of trick is being played, or that gender is a kind of performance. And how important it is just to have any kind of representation at all, since the vast majority of us either don’t know someone who is transgendered, or don’t know that we do – and this includes most young people growing up who are trans themselves. Movie and television characters, however, come into our homes and our consciousness, so we need to get them right.

This documentary could easily shame me for not asking the right questions, not saying the right things, not knowing the right people. Instead, it just allows us to be a part of the conversation, to start thinking in the right direction, to start noticing the gaps, and to meet some people outside of our normal circles. They have every right to be angry and yet Feder and company flood us with hope and optimism. They show us the path forward with respect and dignity, and the very least we can do is take that first step.

Join us on Youtube for further discussion.

I Am Not Your Negro

In 1979, James Baldwin wrote a letter to his agent describing his next book, “Remember This House.” It was to be a revolutionary, personal account of the lives and assassinations of three of his close friends: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. But when Baldwin died, he’d only managed about 30 completed pages of this manuscript. Filmmaker Raoul Peck delivers a stirring documentary as an ode to the book James Baldwin never finished, a work that enmeshes the civil rights work not only of these 3 great men, but that of Baldwin himself.

Samuel L. Jackson narrates some of the strongest and most poetic words – which will not surprise you if you’ve read Baldwin before. He had his finger on the pulse of America, his America, the oft-forgotten America, and he reported on his people with undeniable lyricism, beauty, and confidence.

The documentary expands on his thoughts with archival footage, which is used most effectively when bridging words he wrote 40 or 50 years ago to images of modern conditions and protest, which still apply. I Am Not Your Negro is about civil rights, but it’s also an expression of identity, of unrest, of passion, of hope. He wrote about his people because he saw beauty there, even in the struggle. He was buoyed by it, as much as they were by him. They shored each other up, and as these same issues continue to be fought for even today, it is no wonder we still turn to his words of wisdom and of utter poetry.

Murder To Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story

Netflix is crowded with documentaries just like this one: someone, often a person of colour, has been completely failed by the so-called justice system. And for every documentary made, there are hundreds? thousands? of unnamed prisoners going through the same thing. It’s hard not to burn out on these stories, and we feel so helpless to do anything about it.

Cyntoia Brown was failed many times before the justice system ever had its chance. Her mother Gina was just 16 when Cyntoia was born, already addicted to alcohol and crack. She struggled to raise her for a couple of years, but Gina was herself the victim of childhood molestation and rape, as was her mother before her. When Cyntoia was 2, she was given up for adoption, but she struggled to fit in, and her undiagnosed fetal alcohol poisoning made it impossible for her to thrive in settings that were hostile to her. By the time Cyntoia was 16, she was being pimped frequently by her “boyfriend” and one night, during an encounter that had her feeling particularly vulnerable, she shot the man who had picked her up, fearing and believing that he was about to do the same to her.

The justice system spent very little time deciding her fate: first, to be treated as an adult in court, despite her young age, and second, to sentence her to life in prison for a crime she committed as a scared child in an impossible situation. In 2004, when she was arrested and charged, the court called her a prostitute. Today, it would call her a child sex slave, the victim of human trafficking. But that does her very little good when she’s already been behind bars for 14 years.

But you know what? Some of director Daniel H. Birman’s footage went viral, prompting social media users to retweet #FreeCyntoiaBrown until someone finally paid attention. Her cause went up for review, and Brown pled for a second chance though most of us can see that she never really got her first. Her sentence was commuted and after 15 years in prison, she finally walked free. Now she spends her time advocating for prisoners in similar circumstances, but I think her story is particularly powerful in that it proves that actually we can make a difference. Hearing these stories and sharing these stories is how we begin to mend a broken system.

The Trip To Greece

This is their fourth trip actually; it was Spain before this, and Italy before that, and just a plain old Trip way back in 2010, during which Steve Coogan toured Britain’s best restaurants with best friend (and prime needler) Rob Brydon in tow. These two squabble like an old married couple but they also egg each other on to the greatest heights of comedy, throwing rockets of caustic remarks back and forth, stinging each other with brilliant insults, one-upping each other with first rate impressions.

Since 2010’s The Trip, the subsequent trips have largely followed the restaurant template, but for no good reason. The first one’s aim may have been to savour and review, but what followed was really just an excuse to throw together the same basic ingredients hoping to recapture their recipe for success. And the thing is, with very little effort, they do manage to replicate success. The films may defy traditional categorization but the Brydon-Coogan team is a winning bet, with the added bonus that Coogan continues to churn out content you’re likely familiar with, and Brydon continues to churn out new and exciting to lambaste it. Brydon gleefully pokes at Coogan’s apparent inability to recall an extra from his movie Greed. And he mocks Coogan’s BAFTA nomination for his work in Stan & Ollie – no, not his work, not his acting, his “copying,” his “impersonation,” two meaty jobs right to Coogan’s rib cage all while cajoling him into an impromptu Stan Laurel so that Brydon may offer his Hardy. Tom Hardy.

There’s something eminently watchable about these two. They hardly need the pretense of travel or fine dining; it is a pleasure to watch them under any circumstance. The Trip to Greece is available to rent via VOD, and each of the previous films is just as worthy.