Tag Archives: documentaries

30 Years of Garbage: The Garbage Pail Kids Story

I was probably too young for Garbage Pail Kids. I was possibly too young for Cabbage Patch Kids too, for that matter, but had one anyway, given to me when I was 2 years old and my dumb Mom replaced me with a brand new baby. My Cabbage Patch Kid was named Maud (they came pre-named, with a birth certificate) and she had red yarn hair. My babyGPK_8a_adambomb sister also got one, a brunette named Valerie, which I felt was unfair because she’d done nothing to deserve it besides poop and scream and steal my parents’ love.

Cabbage Patch Dolls were a huge phenomenon in the 1980s, and so too, eventually, were the little trading cards that parodied them. Topps bubblegum did Bazooka and other candy store staples. They’d paired baseball cards with bubblegum for years, and were expanding to “non-sport” cards as well. Failing to secure rights to do a legit Cabbage Patch line, they decided instead to do a “fuck you” line that would skewer these saccharine-sweet dolls.

30 Years of Garbage introduces us to the brilliant, twisted minds behind this idea that was obsessively collected by kids and doggedly censored by parents and principals. Jacques Cousteau, for some reason, cautioned parents that their Garbage Pail loving kids would inevitably end up on cocaine! I may have been too young to appreciate os4_132athis stuff at the time, but I have certainly been aware of them in retrospect. These bubblegum comic artists tapped into a vein of childhood rebellion and ended up making lasting work.

I was shocked to learn that a Garbage Pail co-creator was none other than Art Spiegelman, who wrote Maus, a deeply moving graphic novel about the Holocaust (he uses cats and mice effectively – if you haven’t read it, you simply must). I shouldn’t be surprised that I’d never known the connection – his publishers worked hard to keep it that way!

30 Years of Garbage provides equal doses nostalgia and insight. You don’t need to love
the product to find this documentary compelling: who got screwed, who got sued, who won the war between the First Amendment, and Product Disparagement?

But it’s also interesting because I see this fad repeating itself. My little nephew Brady is into something called Shopkins, which as far as I can tell, is a really stupid “toy”. It’s a tiny rubber thing, shaped like some grocery store item, about the size of a pencil eraser. cards21n-2-webHe’s got a bag of rice, and a bag of flour that looks almost identical to the bag of rice. How these are fun toys I have no idea. We usually pile them on Lightning McQueen and race. But Brady’s own counter culture is already budding at 5 years old: Shopkins are parodied by the Grossery Gang, the same basic shitty toy, but disgusting (ie, mouldy cheese). I don’t get it, but adults aren’t meant to. It’s kind of cool that he’s got his own little act of rebellion, but if you’re in the mood for some throwback rebellion, here’s a hint: the Garbage Pail Kids are back.

 

 

30 Years of Garbage is playing at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival this Sunday, May 7th, 5:30pm at Innis Town Hall.

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Shiners

Shoe shiners: at the airport, a busy subway station, a kiosk in your local mall, even on the street corner. There they are, every day, providing a service to the people walking by. Yet this humble profession is often overlooked. Who goes into shoe shining, and why? Director Stacey Tenenbaum gives us a documentary that gives us the answers by putting us in the shoes of shiners around the world.

Filming in cities as diverse as New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sarajevo, La Paz, and more, shoeshining-640x480Shiners gives a good sense of the universality of pride in one’s work. However, it is also clear that the profession is not viewed the same from one country to the next. In America it is being reclaimed by hipsters who deride the neglect of older crafts. In Japan we see a lot of honour in the skill, in making something old new again. But in other places, it’s seen as degrading work, and the shiners work on the street, earning little money and even less respect.

In that way, Tenebaum quietly addresses poverty and social justice without quite mentioning it directly. Shiners is a character-driven documentary, the shiners speaking for themselves. A mother of young children barely earns enough to feed her family; she refuses to be shamed for her position but insists that her children will be ‘professionals.’

Don, a.k.a. the shoe dude, working a street corner in Manhattan, has a vibrant personality. A former accountant and pastry chef, he’s chosen shoe shining for the sense of freedom it gives him. He talks candidly about the racist connotations of shoe shining, and the satisfaction he’s derived from telling “uppity people” their shoes are dirty.

Shiners excels at providing an insider’s view. It cracks the humanity wide open, and guarantees that you’ll never walk by these people without seeing them again.

 

This review first appeared at Cinema Axis.

 

 

Hot Docs: Do Donkeys Act?

Did you ever have existential questions about donkeys? No? Well, move on.

Or not. The truth is, you haven’t seen anything like Do Donkeys Act? It’s a documentary about donkeys (a donkumentary?), made reputedly by humans (Ashley Sabin and David Redmon), for the enjoyment of – donkeys? There are no talking head interviews in the film, very little input from people, period. There are, however, extended shots of donkeys just “being.” Filmed on a few different donkey sanctuaries where tired and abused donkeys go to live out the last years of their lives, there are no donkey facts, no never-before-seen donkeys in the wild. What the film does offer is plenty of space to contemplate the life and death of these beasts of burden.

Do_Donkeys_act_1How do donkeys cry? Do they tremble inside? Do they dream? These are the types of insights and reflexive cues provided by poetic narration provided by Willem Dafoe. We might spend several minutes just gazing upon a bunch of donkeys eating communally from a trough. We may consider the different utterances we hear and attempt to interpret each one. The donkeys are communicating – are you listening?

The documentary takes the humble donkey and elevates him to the star of his own movie. I started to wonder, listening to them honk and hee-haw, if they were perhaps translating the poetry we were hearing from Dafoe. But then, in a mind-bender, I wondered: is it maybe we who are translating their poetry? Mind blown.

Although its run time is brief and it takes a while to get into its unique rhythm, Do Donkeys Act? has an embracing kind of empathy that came to be quite moving. I’m not sure I’ve come away with specific meaning, but I’ve just spent 72 minutes thinking about donkeys, which is 72 more than I’ve ever given them before, and there’s a kind of grace in that,  triumph for the film makers, dignity for the film’s brave subjects.

 

 

This review first appeared at Cinema Axis, where you can find lots more excellent Hot Docs coverage.

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent

Jeremiah Tower, if not the father of American cuisine, is at the very least its very fun uncle. But a case for fatherhood can be made. He burned bright and then disappeared. This documentary finds him.

One of Tower’s earliest memories: sitting on the beach, maybe 6 years old, watching an old man prepare barracuda for dinner. Holding his hands as they held the knives, watching him rub some spice from the jungle on them, the aroma as the fish cooked. The old man said that next they would eat snake, or perhaps iguana, and those exotic dishes got confused as the old man also referred to the “little lizard” in young Tower’s pants. That child’s confusion, food and sex already mixed up in his head, is perhaps why he went on to be a renowned chef. But it’s not the only reason.

CNN Films: Jeremiah Tower documentaryHe had an unconventional childhood and perhaps not a happy one, travelling extensively with his parents who exposed him to culture and glamour while largely forgetting he existed. Food became his friend and companion, and he’d gluttonously study the menus of all the great restaurants he visited, making friends with the kitchen staff in all the best dining establishments in the very best of hotels.

He never intended to become a chef, but circumstance had made him a cook, and when opportunity knocked, Jeremiah Tower answered. Not only did he answer, he opened the door to a transformation of food and ingredients, and how we thought of them. He was perhaps the first celebrity chef but abandoned it all at the top of his game. Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, Anthony Bourdain, and Martha Stewart all speak of him reverently, but it’s clear his legend is still shrouded in mystery.

A couple of years ago, Jeremiah Tower resurfaced, and the foodie community went bananas foster (that’s me making a foodie joke, fyi). He was to be the new Executive Chef at Tavern on the Green, a large restaurant in New York known more for its touristy location than the quality of its food. It seemed a strange move for such a king of the kitchen, but then again, what do we really know of this culinary superstar who walked away from his own fame and success?

This documentary is fun and interesting from start to finish, but a lot of Tower’s mystery remains intact. Lydia Tenaglia shoots him like the lone wolf he is, perhaps a little scattered and deliberately artsy at times, but the truth is, Tower is a force that pulls you in, his charisma alone enough to compel. The Last Magnificent made me hungry – sure, for some of his California cooking, but mostly just for more of him, of this fascinating, elusive man.

 

 

 

Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent opens Friday May 5th in select cities: Toronto,
Vancouver, Calgary, Halifax, and right here in Ottawa, luckily enough.

 

 

Oklahoma City

We’ve all got points of history that fix us to a certain date and time: maybe you remember where you were when JFK was shot. Maybe it was Prince Charles marrying Diana, or the day the Challenger blew up, or baby Jessica down that well. Certainly 9/11 is fixed in our public conscience. For me, the first news event that really hit me was the bombing in Oklahoma City. I was young, but even in Canada the coverage of this tragedy was electrifying and horrible. I remember learning that there was a daycare in the building, and that feeling in my stomach, a hard pit that formed in my inability to fathom the kind of person capable of this.

MV5BYTJmNWRkYmEtMmU5MC00YzczLTk5NjEtODg3NjFmZTNiNjI0L2ltYWdlL2ltYWdlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjc5MTQ1ODY@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_This documentary places the bombing in Oklahoma City within the context not just of Waco, but of a growing movement within white “christian” “patriots” – white supremacists who distrusted government and valued guns, apparently above all else. The aryan nations held their head quarters of hatred in northern Idaho and things went bed. Of course they did: that many guns in the hands of that many idiots always does.

Meanwhile: who is Timothy McVeigh? Anti-government, conspiracy theorist, sure. But also a soldier, one the government was willing to promote. McVeigh was a loser though, and when he flunked out of ranger school, he hit the road and traveled gun show to gun show. Unsurprisingly, he met with white supremacists, distilling and reinforcing his craziest notions. He washed up in Waco during the siege, selling racist bumper stickers to other lookey-loos, and raged against the government holding its own people hostage, as he saw it. It’s easy to dismiss him as a crackpot, but he’s a crackpot who built a bomb that he knew would claim innocent lives, the lives of children, and felt justified doing it.

When he was arrested and America got their first glimpse of the terrorist behind the atrocity at Oklahoma City, people were astonished to find that this was not some sort of “foreign threat” but one of their own. Fuck.

Over two decades have passed but it’s still hard to look back. Director Barak Goodman offers a restrained, though not bereft of emotion, look at those events, and it’s still hard not to flinch.

Tomorrow

Greetings, Earthlings!

Today is Earth Day. This year’s campaign is all about environmental and climate literacy. Historically people have “celebrated” Earth Day simply by shutting off their lights in the evenings, perhaps playing a board game rather than watching TV, which requires electricity. The Earth actually needs us to do more. This year there is a March For Science in Washington, DC, a rally and teach-in to defend the vital public service role science plays in our communities and our world. Is it crazy sad that such a rally is necessary? Yes it is.

In 2012, Nature published a study led by more than 20 researchers from the top scientific institutions
in the world predicting that humankind could disappear between 2040 and 2100. Like, extinction! But it also said
that it could be avoided by drastically changing our way of life if we take appropriate measures right now. Scientists are always telling us this and we’re always not listening. Well, listening maybe, but not really willing to change our lifestyle. But a bunch of French film makers got together and decided to try to rattle our cages a bit.

Tomorrow is a documentary that doesn’t just hit us over the head with the problem but rather offers solutions. For the coming food MV5BNzc5MzVkZTQtNmU1Yy00YTQ3LTk3ODMtNjY5ODc0MzU0MGE2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzMwODMxMTQ@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,936_AL_shortage, they explore urban agriculture, microfarming, and permaculture. As to our reliance on fossil fuels, they visit places that are moving successfully toward renewable resources, cities declaring themselves carbon neutral. They also tackle some of the big things holding us back: economy and government. Since democracy runs on the steam of big business, how can we ever move away from consumerism?

There are lots of important questions to consider in this work by Cyril Dion and Melanie Laurent, but the greatest takeaway is that of hope. If the documentary is a little too ambitious to keep laser focus, it at least presents viable solutions , things you and I can do in our very own communities that will make a difference.

Tomorrow is in theatres in New York and L.A. in time for Earth Day, and a wider release will follow. It’s required viewing for those of us who want to leave this planet in better condition than we found it.

Tower

August 1, 1966: a gunman opens fire from the clock tower of the University of Texas. No one can get near him. He’d hold not only the campus but much of the surrounding city of Austin hostage. Bodies lay in an open court yard, a pregnant woman bleeding out, but no one could risk rescue. The sniper had vantage and advantage, and the shooting went on forever – 90 long minutes in real time, but a lifetime for those who lay bleeding, and those who watched in fear from the sidelines.

towerThe documentary Tower tells of the people there that day – the students, the injured, the reporters, the cops, the citizens. Those listening on the radio knew that the local police didn’t have weapons that could reach the clock tower, so lay people took up their rifles and rushed to the scene. When a couple of cops finally did breach the clock tower, they had to duck not only the shooter’s bullets, but those of all the well-meaning “helpers.”

It’s a beautiful documentary. My words will fail me. If you have Netflix, only watching it can do it justice. Director Keith Maitland uses animation to bring the events to life, to put us in the shoes of survivors. Tower is a portrait of courage. It’s also agonizing in its recriminations, doubts, and guilt. It’s very human. The story is told with grace and sensitivity, with new perspective and the benefit of time. But no amount of time has erased the trauma of that day, and this documentary reveals how many have buried the worst memories of that day.

I doubt if the shooting at UT was the first U.S. school shooting, but it certainly wasn’t the last. In that kind of historical context, it’s uncomfortable to measure just how long it’s been since this, the most American of crimes, has been allowed to gain epidemic proportions, virtually unchecked. The fact that there is still today no memorial for those who died, or those who survived, that day at the University of Texas, reminds us of the lurid headlines school shootings inspire, but within days, weeks at most, the tragedy is swept under a rug, not to be revisited until the next shooter opens fire. Perhaps a little remembrance is exactly what is needed. Tower remembers.

Seed

AngelHack, pioneer of global hackathons, is a female-owned, female-majority company that’s the world’s biggest, most diverse collective of hackers and developers. They’re driving innovation and tech products faster than you can blink an eye. This documentary follows their Silicon Valley Week, in which they invite the top 1% of hackers with an entrepreneurial spirit to come prepare their pitch and get launch-ready before Annual Global Demo Day.

E28A3520Seed follows three teams in particular: one, a couple of high school kids with a bright idea involving sneakers; another, a group from Nairobi who’ve developed a garbage-reporting ap; and the third a couple of guys from Palestine who are using the uber model to provide a parcel delivery service for small businesses.

It’s really cool to see industry leaders take time out to mentor these aspiring entrepreneurs. Their pitches are honed, designs streamlined, products tested. And how cool to peek behind the mysterious Silicon Valley curtain and see everything a young company goes through before those big breakthroughs, or more likely, first failures. Start-ups don’t come from nowhere: Seed shows us where the ideas germinate, and how they’re nurtured. And AngelHack is where it’s at: by “creating code and making change” they’ve actually supported over 150 start-ups. Their clients include IBM, BlackBerry, Hasbro, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which helped fund the film.

E28A6097I love documentaries because they let me understand a slice of the world that was previously closed to me. And when I tell you that I literally had to Google how to get a tab in Chrome to pop out into a new window while watching this movie, you’ll understand how removed I am from this world of hackers who live mysteriously inside my phone (do they?).

Director Andrew Wonder (ironically, given the material, using rare film lenses from the 1930s to capture a unique cinematic feel) gives us a good sense of the urgency, the stress, the nail biting, and the hopefulness of this event. It’s a pressure cooker. And as the documentary exposes, though only one ap will win, there’s more than one way to make winners AND losers of the competitors.

Seed is streaming on Amazon Prime.

SXSW: Muppet Guys Talking

Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind The Show The Whole World Watched is a documentary directed by Frank Oz. It features several of the “original” muppet puppeteers\voices – Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Berretta, Jerry Nelson (now deceased), and Oz himself. It’s a very loving but simple film, just friends and colleagues having a chat over coffee. They discuss the characters they helped create and bring to life, the shows that made them famous, and the man behind it all: Jim Henson.

The documentary runs just over an hour but is packed full of priceless recollections. These people are still brimming with admiration for Jim Henson all these years later, and it’s clear that his legend lives on. Muppet Guys Talking is a testament to the power of creativity, and the importance of having the freedom to truly embrace it. It’s also just a lovely tribute to the characters we all grew up loving, and a reminder that the hidden humans behind those characters are not just providing a voice, but have also got their hands up their asses.

dave-gonzoDave Goelz is perhaps best known for puppeteering\voicing Gonzo. He also does Bunsen Honeydew and Zoot from The Muppet Show, Boober Fraggle and Uncle Travelling Matt from Fraggle Rock, and the puppetry for  Sir Didymus in Labyrinth, and dozens more.

 

Fran Brill was an actor before she turned to puppeteering, but Jim Henson knew she FranBrill-ZoePrairiehad good instincts and recruited her for his workshop. It paid off: she won an Emmy for her work on
Sesame Street, where she has originated many characters, including (but not limited to!) Zoe, Little Bird, Betty Lou, and Prarie Dawn.

 

D23 EXPO 2015, The Magic Behind the MuppetsBill Barretta got his start puppeteering on Dinosaurs, and later developed characters for Muppets Tonight including Pepe the King Praw, Johnny Fiama, and Bobo the Bear. He also took over some of Jim Henson’s characters after his death, including Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Mahna Mahna, and Swedish Chef.

 

Jerry Nelson’s most-loved character may be Sesame Street’s Count Von Count, though he was jerry-nelson---voice-of-count-von-count-on-sesame-street-55b75bda60f9fffaalso the original puppeteer for Snuffleupagus.  On The Muppet Show he did Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Dr. Julius Strangepork (from Pigs in Space), Kermit’s nephew Robin the Frog, and Gonzo’s girlfriend, Camilla the Chicken, among many, many others, and he often did the show’s announcing as well. On Fraggle Rock he did the lead character, Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg, and Marjory the Trash Heap.

sesame_street_jim_henson_frank_ozFrank Oz is of course the man behind Miss Piggy, plus Fozzie Bear, Animal, and Sam Eagle from The Muppet Show, and Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover from Sesame Street, and even did the puppeteering and voice work for a minor character in Star Wars – Yoda. Besides this documentary, he’s the director of films such as Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob, In & Out, and Death at a Funeral.

Each of them reminisce about the inspiration behind the characters, how they helped shape them, how they evolved over time, the crazy contortions they pulled hiding behind their more recognizable but felt-based counterparts. It was a very cool documentary, and lucky us, we also got to sit in on a Q&A session with the performers (moderated by Robert Rodriguez!), so look for some of that in the comments section!

 

SXSW: Bill Frisell, A Portrait

Bill Frisell’s discography is incomparable. He’s worked with the best of the best, all of whom consider HIM to be The Best. He’s an actual guitar hero, his influence widespread, his sound envied and copies and admired. But Bill remains an unsung guitar hero, his name not well-known to those outside the business, and he’s pretty content to keep it that way. This documentary, however, is a character portrait of this very interesting man, and very influential musician.

MV5BM2Y1N2I1OTktMGIxYy00N2I1LTljOTMtZjBjM2IzNDRiNjg4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzMwNzMyMjk@._V1_The good thing about this documentary is that so many people line up to talk about Frisell: director Emma Franz assembles the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, and more, and the amazing thing is that all of the people have nothing but glowing things to say about the man. The GREAT thing about this documentary, though, is that it contains plenty of live music to love and appreciate, and gosh he’s got a lot.

Bill Frisell seems reluctant to talk about himself (he is however, inclined to sing the praises of other artists), so every nugget teased out feels like a treasure. This documentary will look at the very things that shaped his sound, with particular time spent peering into his brilliant mind and trying to understand music the way he does. There’s lots of great insight here, an intimacy I hardly dared hope for.

His guitar collection is impressive, but not as impressive as his genuine love for each one. It’s so endearing. What a great documentary to have stumbled upon, and I sincerely hope that it’ll be available for your perusal also.