Tag Archives: documentaries

American Factory

As the trade war between the US and China escalates, American Factory arrives on Netflix and shows why this war is one that China is likely to win.  The US is at a severe disadvantage in this war that it started, because the American Dream now belongs more to China than to the endangered American middle class, and because idyllic post-war America was built in large part on cheap imports from China and now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

American Factory is the first Netflix film from the Obamas’ production studio, and its release is perfectly timed.  China and the US continue to threaten each other higher and higher tariffs, announcing another round of increases to take effect american-factory-1this fall. Of course, these threats are not really to the countries themselves; they are threats to consumers, who will inevitably bear all these increases in the form of higher priced goods.

While American Factory isn’t really about tariffs, the tariffs are still an important part of the story. That’s because the tariffs were instigated by the US in order to bring manufacturing back to the American heartland, which has been decimated by the loss of factory jobs as more and more of those jobs elsewhere to take advantage of cheaper labour and lower safety standards.

One of those shuttered factories is a former GM plant in Dayton, Ohio. Its closure in 2008 put thousands out of work, but in 2015 Fuyao Glass America, a Chinese-backed company, reopened the plant and brought hope back to Dayton. However, we quickly see that the reality is not quite as rosy as the fantasy, because the workers have taken a 30% pay cut, safety standards are not enforced, and management uses every dirty trick in the book to prevent the workers from unionizing.

Chinese workers are brought in to show the Americans how to operate the plant, and managers from the US are trained in China to help them better motivate the workers. American Factory captures the remarkable contrast between the workers’ attitudes in the two nations, and the attitudes of the nations as a whole. The Chinese are willing to work harder for less, sacrificing their bodies and family lives for the benefit of the company. The Americans, on the other hand, feel entitled to earn more money than their Chinese counterparts without making any of the same sacrifices.

Something has to give there.  In both the Fuyao factory and in the larger trade war, the Americans can’t possibly get everything they want but are oblivious to that reality.  Working-class Americans seem not to have realized that their consumer-centric society only exists because of other countries’ cheap labour, and that unskilled labourers will never again be “middle class”. If these American factory workers want to achieve their desired standard of living, they need to acquire marketable skills. Labour is no longer marketable on its own, and China and the rest of the world are eager to live the American Dream. China and the rest of the world also clearly want to realize that dream so much more than the Americans do, so in any head-to-head battle the Americans are going to lose out. The only question is whether the Americans will realize that before it’s too late.

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Power of Grayskull

I don’t know of many men around my age who don’t know the opening words to He-Man: “By the power of Grayskull…I have the power!” It appealed to every kind of kid the world over. Whomever holds the sword, holds the power. And what kid doesn’t wish for power? The power to eat unlimited popsicles, stay up past bedtime, and rot your brain with comic books and candy. They were humble asks, really, but the very promise was intoxicating. Adam could, with the use of his sword, turn into the most powerful man in the universe. He-Man’s muscles were popping! His scaredy cat sidekick Cringer turned into a mighty Battle Cat who fearlessly leapt into battle, fangs first, with He-Man saddled to his back.

Mattel was struggling as a toy company. They had the successful Barbie line as well as Hot Wheels but wanted to get a great line of action figures for boys, a brand they could rely on. They were buying up movie licenses to release tie-in merchandise, but they always missed the mark. In the 70s, there still hadn’t really been a movie that spawned a successful toy, and Mattel’s Clash of the Titans line was another huge miss. The movie came and went in theatres, and the demand for toys immediately dried up (there weren’t home videos back then to keep the steam going). They had the opportunity to grab Star Wars licensing and passed. D’oh! So they went with the next big thing: Conan. Which might have been a good idea had the movie not turned out to be rated R with nudity and violence – not exactly toy-friendly. Shit. So instead of chasing after licences, they decided to just invent their own brand, which is where He-Man comes from – inside some Mattel guy’s brain. To sell the toys (and the vehicles, accessories, sidekicks, villains, etc etc etc), they came up with a back story to illustrate on the packaging, hopefully sparking the imagination of children. It worked. Little boys loved the toys, especially since Mattel released mini comic-books in the packaging to further flesh out the mythology.

In 1981, rules around children’s programming changed, and while before they would not have been able to create a show about a toy (essentially a 30 minute commercial), suddenly they could, and so of course they did. And heck yes the kids ate it up. The show had a whole cast of characters and cool locations that inspired toys constantly, which turned the Masters of the Universe into a billion dollar empire. The show and toy line were so successful that they thought: why not chase the girls too? So a twin sister was invented out of thin air: Adora, who of course turns into She-Ra, Princess of Power.

These stories were manufactured ass-backward to serve a need to sell bits of coloured plastic. It’s actually kind of fascinating to see how it comes together, and ultimately inspires a live-action movie starring Dolph Lundgren and Frank Langella. He-Man is remembered ever so fondly by fanboys of a certain age, who also embraced She-Ra, it probably goes without saying (her story lines were more sophisticated, her animation bolder, and she rides a goddamn horse with wings).

She-Ra was definitely my jam, although having little sisters usually meant that I was Swift Wind, the talking unicorn, more often than the princess of power herself (who wears the coolest head piece ever invented). So I really ate up every bit of this documentary which seeks out all the dusty corners of its creation. I love learning the practical ways in which creative ideas were born. It’s a call behind the scenes opportunity to pick the brains of those involved, and what a fabulous collection of creators!

The Great Hack

We love the internet so much, we sold our souls to keep it growing. There is literally no such thing as privacy online, but we like Facebook and Youtube and Instagram so much, we just kind of shrug our shoulders as we tick those ‘I’ve read the terms & conditions’ boxes without so much as scrolling through. But even if we read all that fine print, and knew exactly how invasively these companies were mining your personal information, we’d still grant that permission because we’re so dependent on social media platforms and apps that walking away at this point feels hardly plausible.

The Great Hack is a documentary that looks specifically at Cambridge Analytica, which is a company that makes its money by gathering and weaponizing your Facebook likes. Data is the most valuable asset on Earth – more valuable than oil. YOU are the commodity and Big Data is doing everything it can to know you, intimately, without you even realizing.

Cambridge Analytica has 5000 data points on every American voter. Think about that. Could you even say 5000 different things about yourself? This company can. It has scanned your private messages, your profiles, your preferences. They know what you watch, what you turn off halfway through, what you share, what you save, what you click on, what you scroll by. We all know that this data has been used for several years to make ads tailored to us. If I’ve been looking into dehumidifiers, suddenly my feed is suspiciously full of ads for dehumidifiers. But Big Data is doing something much more sinister than that. It is using your information to subvert democracy. During Trump’s run for president, his campaign spent one million dollars per day PER DAY on Facebook ads. They knew what you needed to hear in order to consider Trump. They also knew how to turn you against Hilary. They targeted you. They made videos just for you. They made sure you only saw what they wanted you to see. Cambridge Analytica is a full-service propaganda machine, and you don’t get a choice in the matter because they find you wherever you are – in your emails, your online shopping, your dating profile, your mother’s Facebook account.

Facebook Facebook Facebook. You’ve heard that a lot already, and for good reason. Much of this deviousness is happening on Facebook. All these personality quizzes? Data mining. Questionnaires? Data mining. I left Facebook a while ago because I knew I just couldn’t trust it. I try to be smart about my online consumption, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If a friend of yours does all those personality tests, you’re fucked. Because they give the app permission not just to look into their own profiles, but those of all their friends. And often we know who these people are. I’ll give you a hint: it’s my mother. Just 3 days ago, she shared yet another, one in which she shared answers to questions like # of marriage, of divorces, of children, of pets, of vacations, etc etc etc. Thanks Mom! Facebook OWNS our data, our pictures, every single bit of info we’ve ever shared on there. They own the quizzes you take and the videos you watch. They own my mother’s travel iternaries, and the pictures she posts of her grandkids. They know where she works, where she went to school, who her classmates were, who her neighbours are, where she eats dinner on a Friday night. Because she tells them. She volunteers the information and Facebook allows companies like Cambridge Analytica, which refers to ITSELF as a behaviour change agency, to come in and scrape every last little valuable detail from people’s profiles. And they’re using that information for GLOBAL POLITICAL MANIPULATION. Facebook is DESIGNED to get you to give up your info, it CREATED tools to help companies target you, it made BILLIONS of dollars selling your data to the highest bidder – nay – to every bidder – without your true, informed consent.

Your data is being used against you. It’s being used to shape world politics. It’s being used to stoke fear. And it’s happening in the same place where you share recipes and baby news and dog pictures.

Cambridge Analytica was partly owned by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge fund manager who supports conservative causes. STEVE BANNON was their VP. They did work for Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Brexit. Through paid advertising on Facebook, it received clicks from 270 000 users. But those 270 000 Facebook users gave the app permission to also mine the data of everyone in their Friends network. From those 270K users, Cambridge Analytica then had access to 87 MILLION people. Are you confident you aren’t one of them? Or do you maybe have a mom like mine, or an aunt who overshares, or a friend who always tags you? Chances are, someone you know loves to do quizzes: What % Billie Eilish are you? Can we guess your age based on your Disney movie preferences? Are you more Miley Cyrus or Hannah Montana?

Anyway. The Great Hack is streaming on Netflix right now, which also knows an unsettling amount about you, if we’re being honest. So it’s important that we start thinking about ways to protect ourselves, personally, collectively, nationally, globally. By the time my mom’s grandkids are adults, they’ll have 70 THOUSAND data points about themselves, and if things continue as they are, absolutely NO rights to them. We can try to stop our data leaks, limit the info we share, but as citizens of the 21st century, there is no way to live completely outside the matrix. So our information continues to be sold, and we continue to be manipulated. What are we going to do about it?

Tig

Tig Notaro is one of my favourite comedians. Although always an amazing, deadpan comedian, she hit the popularity rocket when she did a ground-breaking set the day after she was diagnosed with cancer. She just stood on the stage and bravely free-associated her new reality, and people were floored. Floored.

I mean, if you know her story at all, cancer was just the cherry on top. Weeks before, she’d been in the hospital in crazy pain with a life-threatening diagnosis of C-Diff. She got out of the hospital just in time to make her mother’s funeral, who’d died suddenly after a freak accident, falling in her own living room and hitting her head, a seemingly benign incident that killed her 24 hours later. Then Tig went through a break up, though moments before they’d been considering starting a family. And then: breast cancer. So it was a tumultuous few weeks, and you can only imagine her frame of mind when she wandered on stage that famous night. Although, technically you don’t have to: Louis C.K. was in the audience that night, and helped her put out an album of that set, which for obvious reasons could never be recreated.

So in the wake of her having a double mastectomy, she was suddenly very famous and a very sought-after comedian, one who now had no material since she could never re-perform the cancer bit. Crazy. Tig (the documentary) is a clever reflection upon that crazy time in her life, with the help of similarly funny, famous friends like Bill Burr and Sarah Silverman.

I love stand-up comedy. Like, LOVE love. I love how accessible comedy has become thanks in part to Netflix, but also satellite radio and Spotify – I listen to lots of podcasts in my car these days. Tig is among my favourites, and Sean and I meant to see her at Just For Laughs last year, only she cancelled her set at the last minute, but we saw other favourites of mine, like Maria Bamford, Fortune Feimster, and Carmen Esposito. This year we’re seeing Marc Maron and Fred Armisen. But as much fun as it is to see a live set, it’s such an exciting time to be able to supplement those with bonuses, of which I’d say that this documentary is most definitely one. It’s an incredible story either way, but she’s also a comedian that you just need to get into. She has a very watchable, very bingeable show as well, called One Mississippi. Maria Bamford had one called Lady Dynamite. Jim Gaffigan had one less inventively titled The Jim Gaffigan Show (do you suppose men just reflexively have to slap their names all over things?). Anyway, it tickles me to no end when comedians pop up in things, and I will continue to seek them out, because to my mind, comedy is the absolute hardest thing to get right. Comedies are largely underappreciated and downright ignored by critics and award-givers, but that’s absurd. When humour works, it unites us all in such a base, instinctual way. It’s glorious. But as you know, a lot of humour comes from pain. It takes a special talent to extract the funniness from a horrible situation.

And maybe that’s what makes Tig so special. That she was willing to use her own personal hell, her own heartbreak, not only to entertain us, but to make us whole. Comedy is healing. Laughing is medicinal. Give yourself a Tig injection; it keeps the doctor away.

The Black Godfather

Clarence Avant: he’s the brilliant mind, the visionary who brought people together in exactly the right way for decades. Never famous himself, he knew everyone. Everyone everyone. And was respected by everyone. He was the rainmaker, as they say, in TV, music, movies, business, and politics. He was a mentor to nearly anyone who’s anyone – particularly in the black community. So how is it I don’t even know his name?

Avant is the kind of man who understands that his power lies behind the scenes, but believe me, he is not without recognition. He doesn’t just have a finger in all the pies, he’s baking and selling all the pies. But he’s so humble he can’t even bear to acknowledge the nickname that grateful thousands have bestowed upon him: The Godfather. He’s so humble he never even went looking for half the jobs he ended up with, it’s just that those around him couldn’t help but be impressed by his talent and were smart enough to move Clarence where he could do the most good. Because at his core, he’s a good and decent man. Imagine having all those connections, all that respect and power and influence, and it never going to your head. Well THAT’s what makes Clarence Clarence.

Quincy Jones describes their relationship as “love at first sight” and my favourite thing about this documentary is that rather than just talking-head interviews, these two greats are in a room together, Avant hanging his head as Jones confesses their youthful indulgences. It’s glorious insight. Interviews with his family go similarly, swimmingly. It’s wonderfully intimate, engaging, and fun to watch.

He may have often been the only black man in the room, but he always belonged. And this was at the height of Jim Crow bullshit. And he puts his client, Jim Brown, in one of the first interracial love scenes (with Raquel Welch in 100 Rifles, 1969). He didn’t march in the streets but he lifted up his people.

The documentary consults many stars: Cicely Tyson, Hank Aaron, Bill Withers, Bill Clinton, David Geffen, Snoop Dogg, Lalo Schifrin, Jim Brown, Jamie Foxx, Barack Obama – but to hear them tell it, they may be the stars, but Clarence Avant is their sun.

Chasing Happiness

I missed the Jonas Brothers Happening. I mean, I wasn’t exactly living under a rock, but I was disconnected from pop music. I was going through a rough divorce from a partner whose mental health was on the rocks. I was rebuilding my life from scratch, working hard to finance my fresh start. I was exhausted and exhilarated and my playlist was full of power anthems, a kick-ass score for my happy new life. I remember being in a movie theatre and the trivia before the movie had me guessing between a Jonas and a Bieber, and I was clueless. Although I knew of them, I hadn’t knowingly consumed either – though I knew I’d likely heard their songs in malls or cabs if not clubs – and couldn’t name a song, or a brother. And then just as I was sticking my head up above the sand, the brothers were no more. Well, bands dissolve more readily than blood, but Jonas Brothers was over, and soon enough each Jonas was hitting the radio individually, which made it marginally easier to keep track of them.

Chasing Happiness is streaming now on Amazon Prime; it’s about Jonas Brothers reforming as a band now that they’re adults. A lot of shit went down, which they are surprisingly candid about. I’m obviously not a fan, but their transparency and realness are readily apparent and it’s hard not to get sucked into their particular brand of rags to riches.

They were close growing up, and they were competitive too. Like any brothers anywhere. Or indeed sisters. My sisters and I get super competitive if we’re playing a board game or competing for Mom’s attention, but I guess we’re not talented enough to have Jonas-level game. We’re not even good at the same things. But those brothers are disgustingly talented; any one of them can sing 9 out of 10 top 40 artists right off the billboard any day of the week. And they’re for real: they play real instruments, they write their own songs. Even as kids they were writing their own songs. Fifteen year olds are pretty shitty song writers, but they were so earnest and industrious it’s hard not to admire them anyway.

Few people have experienced such meteoric fame, let alone so quickly, and at such a young age. It’s three literal dreams come true, but enormous pressure too. Their father was a pastor, and he lost his job when his sons chose rock and roll (trying hard not to snigger when I write that), and the family home too. So now these teenage boys are the bread winners for their family. Meanwhile the machine just keeps getting bigger and bigger until it feels unmanageable.

Anyway, even having no idea who these guys really are, I still really enjoy sitting in on their family therapy sessions. Their Christianity and sexuality were on constant display despite them being minors. The media scrutiny sometimes made them into a joke, and their seminal years were tainted sometimes by fear and paranoia. There are cracks in Jonas Brothers, and one of the brothers plugs the crack with a stick of dynamite and lights it up.

Kaboom. Other bands can implode and go their own ways. But these boys are actual family. It’s sad and fascinating and honest. Man. I felt their pain. There’s resentment and betrayal and heartbreak there. Still is. It’s intense. But I really admire their willingness to lay themselves bare. I’m fairly confident that no one reading this has walked in shoes like theirs. But anyone with siblings will relate to this. We’ve all felt that knife. I’ve felt that knife. And anyone whose life changed after kids will relate to this. Anyone who’s grown apart from a best friend will relate to this. Maybe just anyone with a pulse will relate to this. I’ve gone and surprised myself by giving a damn about the Jonas Bros. I think I’m actually recommending this guys. Colour me surprised.

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

John Lennon died before I was born, but that hardly means he’s failed to have an impact on my life. He casts such a long cultural shadow, his musical catalogue has such depth, and his ideas and philosophies linger still, in even the simplest line drawing of his face.

John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky focuses on the 1971 recording of his album, Imagine, at Tittenhurst park, where he and his family had retreated from his swollen, frantic lifestyle as the world’s most recognizable pop star. Imagine stands apart from the work he did with The Beatles, and is in fact very much a collaboration with his wife, Yoko, and the ideas she tested out in her written work – especially 1964’s Grapefruit.

MV5BMzM1OTRhNzctOTRkNC00YjU4LTg1ZTYtOGVhMzZiMDA3Yzk2XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDYxOTY1Njg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,827,1000_AL_The documentary is replete with never before seen footage and home video. It shows John and Yoko in repose, at play, at work, the midst of inspiration. Lots of session musicians and music journalists are interviewed – director Michael Epstein has literally sought out every and any person who was in or around the Tittenhurst recording studio at that time, including Yoko Ono herself, and son Julian.

Imagine surpasses musical status and has become a cultural touchstone. John & Yoko brings the album back to earth, back to its humble beginnings as bits and pieces inside John’s head. We see the songs mature from ideas to sometimes orchestral pieces, the musicians alive with an excited motivation they’ve probably never reproduced. Still, my favourite moments of this documentary are the domestic ones. It’s thinking about little Julian, who gets to crawl around a legendary recording studio but is bored out of his gourd listening to the same song over and over again. To him it’s just dad’s work. I also really loved watching John record a dis track against Paul – with George! Of course we didn’t know to call them dis tracks yet in 1971, but that’s exactly what it was, and it’s a delicious part of history, and John himself addresses the tension between himself and fellow Beatle Paul McCartney. They were brothers to the end, I think, often fighting because they were simply too close.

This documentary has lots of juicy little moments, literally something for every fan. But it’s also a tribute not just to John and Yoko’s love story, but to their partnership, their meeting of the minds. Because it’s clear that John is not just infatuated – he admires and respects her. She clearly influences his thinking, solidifies his philosophies. They’re changing each other at a cellular level and you can almost see it happening. John & Yoko is definitely worth a watch as it breathes new life into an album that’s hard to picture the world without.