Thursday, April 29, 2010

Disco and Atomic War

Jaak Kilmi | 2009 | 80 min | Estonia + Finland

Disco and Atomic War is the story of the evolution of television on the edge of the Iron Curtain. The capital of Soviet block Estonia, Tallinn, was so close to the Western nation of Finland that eager Communists with modified televisions could receive their broadcasts. The US State Department was quick to realize that this battle in the heads of young Communists was as important as any battleground. As the Dallases and Knight Riders poured into Soviet homes, US cash poured into Finland, helping them construct dazzling high transmission towers.

The film is told from those who were on the front lines: inventors building antennae out of scrap metal; young campers waiting for the first broadcast of Emmanuel; cousins corresponding about scandals among the Ewings.

In less capable hands the subject of broadcast television in Estonia would surely be a dry talking heads picture. While director Jaak Kilmi doesn't shy away from offering the insights of media professors and government historians, it is the flourishes of the personal stories told in beautifully spare recreations and the bevy of perfectly selected stock footage that makes Disco and Atomic War such an arresting treat to watch. It is as brilliant a synthesis of storytelling and straight information delivery as I think I have seen. The film manages to capture the enthusiasm of youthful fan devotion so strongly that it that makes the alien concept of a cloak and dagger struggle to see your favourite program easy to empathize and relate to.

I loved Disco and Atomic War. So much so that I give this movie my highest recommendation: MANDATORY STATE-SPONSORED VIEWING.

Disco and Atomic War plays Hot Docs on April 30 and May 1. Check here for schedule and watch the trailer here.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Candyman: The David Klein Story

Costa Botes | 76 min | 2010 | New Zealand + US

Via friends, relatives, and other uncritical sort, Candyman: The David Klein Story tells the tale of the inventor of Jelly Belly jelly beans who had his work ruthlessly stolen from him by a faceless corporation. Or not. David Klein came up with the concept for gourmet jelly beans in the late seventies. He worked hard in tandem with an established confection company to develop the highest quality product and his natural sales and showmanship took Jelly Belly to the top shelf of candy products. Many names and faces related to Klein's business dealings are thrown around in the early portion of the film making them difficult to keep track of, but the larger picture of Klein's life and the candy's development are reasonably easy to follow. What becomes clear late into the murk of this picture is that Klein is a very friendly man with very little business acumen. Whether the result of altruism or not, he made several poor decisions with his business and no longer owns the Jelly Belly name and the once popular face of the brand is now forgotten.

Tellingly, both of Klein's children have producer credits on the movie. Candyman is a love letter to dad and an effort to restore his legacy, and it suffers greatly from family trips down memory lane and anecdotes about what a great, kooky fella Klein is. Even at only 76 minutes the movie feels heavily padded. The final act soliloquies from Klein's son and a lengthy aside about Ronald Reagan are among the elements that feel completely out of place and tacked on to hit the feature length mark. Weird Al Yankovic even has several scenes, for God's sake. At first I assumed his presence was due to him being a family friend, but soon it becomes clear: no, Weird Al is simply a candy enthusiast. He frequently describes Jelly Belly candies as "quite good."

The financial details of Klein's deal with the company who now owns Jelly Belly are not mentioned until near the close of the film. I suspect it is because those details make it even more difficult to relate to Klein's "trials." Klein is fond of hyperbole and speaking about how Jelly Belly "ruined his life," but what Jelly Belly actually did was provide him with a significant income for most of his adult life without robbing him of the chance to complain about it. That is a tough struggle to get behind.

Candyman plays Hot Docs on May 1 and 4. Check here for schedule and watch the trailer here.

The Story of Furious Pete

George Tsioutsioulas | 2010 | 85 min | Canada

Pete Czerwinski was hospitalized for anorexia as a young man. He weighed 120 pounds and his organs were so taxed that his heart was about to fail. He received comfort and support from his family, particularly his mother who battles disease of her own, and began recovering during the lengthy bed rest. Once he was released from hospital Pete began an intense fitness and bodybuilding regimen. His appetite returned in spades. Following a night out with friends, Pete consumed four massive hangover helping breakfasts on a dare. Other restaurant patrons gathered around the delicious spectacle, and Furious Pete was born.

A great deal of time is spent talking about Pete's battle with anorexia as well as his parent's trials with illness. Czerwinski has been through a lot and is not shy about sharing it. He is a warm and open man and the film would not work at all were he not. His unassuming character and unlikely carriage for a competitive eater make him a great subject to follow into this world.

There is nothing visually remarkable about Furious Pete, but it is shot well and edited cleanly. However, the great burden of budget documentaries, stock music, does pops up again here (music is credited to

Pete Czerwinski is followed on his daily training routines as well as on the road to professional eating competitions. Watching competitive eaters eat is disgusting, particularly in slow motion. It is also wildly entertaining. The eating scenes in Furious Pete may be some of the purest pleasures and gross outs of my film going life. As a bonus, I appreciated the chance to witness competitive eater trash talk. Getting trash talked by a grown man in overalls seems like it would be particularly galling.

During these travels the politics of the different professional eating leagues are also brought to light. Yes, there are professional eating leagues. Plural. I could have probably watched an entire film learning about their origins and watching the jostling between organizations, but the broad strokes are covered in the way they relate to Pete's story.

The weakness in Furious Pete is that at no point does the director ask, "Do you think competitive eating is just the flip side of your eating disorder? Is it another way to control your environment? Do you think it is ultimately as harmful as your anorexia was?" That's a shame, because I really would have liked to have seen that probed into. There is slight attention paid to the possible health ramifications of Pete's eating, but he is given a clean bill of health on camera and it is left at that. The director clearly had a certain tale in mind, though, and I understand those questions would interfere with the feel-good vibe of Furious Pete. If you are looking for a hard hitting investigation you can forget it, but Furious Pete does offer a unique, if light, glimpse at a strong man and his gross world.

The great pay off of the film is finally seeing Pete eat a 72 ounce steak in real time over the closing credits. Three camera set-up, running clock, completely captivating.

The Story of Furious Pete plays Hot Docs on April 30 and May 9. Check here for schedule and watch the trailer here.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


Barbara Schroeder | 2010 | 83 min | US

Oh, Internet, is there anything you can't ruin? Marinesniper and beefcake were co-workers, online gamers, and IRL friends. Talhotblond was an 18 year-old girl named Jessi, a fellow gamer, and a serial online flirter. She became friend, then cybersex partner, to both men. She seemed to take as much delight with the online affairs as with pitting them against each other. While beefcake grew tired of talhotblond and made an effort to distance himself, marinesniper plunged deeper into his online persona, losing himself in violent fantasy. While talhotblond goaded them on further, beefcake was completely ignorant that he was about to become the focus of marinessniper's rage and the last piece needed for him to completely dissolve into delusion.

The opening moments of talhotblond gave me pause. It begins with a voice-over from beyond the grave: an actor telling us he is the murder victim of the story and is about to show us how everything went wrong. Right out of the Sunset Boulevard playbook. Or something. Aesthetically, talhotblond is a minor mess of computer graphics and canned music, but the story is so compelling that the television newsmagazine format is forgivable. It avoids salaciousness in favour of weaving a very clever narrative through interviews, text conversations between the three players, and the guiding voice-over. Yes, the voice-over that made me cringe at the beginning turned out to be a smart device to keep me invested. The interviews cover the key players in the case and offer welcome analysis on the motives behind the snowballing of the online relationships.

Barbara Schroeder takes on a lot with this film. Not only is it her first credited feature as a director, she is also the chief reporter, writer, and editor of the piece. I am very much looking forward to what she tackles next.

I will not offer anymore about the story because it provides some great surprises, but suffice to say talhotblond is a fascinating glimpse of crime and alienation in the 21st century. This story is prime "ripped from the headlines" Law and Order material. What? That's a compliment coming from me! Shut up.

talhotblond plays Hot Docs on May 1 and 2. Check here for schedule and watch the trailer here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

These Girls

Tahani Rached | 2006 | 68 min | Egypt

These Girls is a documentary portrait of a small group of girls who share companionship in the brutal and violent streets of Cairo, Egypt. Unfortunately, These Girls goes out of its way to insert so much whimsy and romance into the lives of these teenage prostitutes and runaways that virtually all of the impact is lost. The music, editing, and extended dances sequences all conspire to reduce this film to near parody. Yes, i said extended dance sequences. In one scene, a man washes out a found styrofoam cooler with rags to act as a makeshift crib for a girl's newborn baby. It is a disturbing moment- or it would be were it not played for laughs. The theatre thought it was adorable. Those homeless people are so inventive! Cute!

Also problematic is that the film gives no context to their lives or community so a great deal of cultural references are lost. The same can be said of the heavy reliance of euphemistic language like "slept with" or "love" to indicate rape, kidnapping, and prostitution. And to avoid any problems with what seems to be a predetermined story arc, when a girl is arrested or otherwise disappears, she is given no more than a quick mention and is quickly forgotten in favour of the other main "characters."

There is a great documentary that could made about these young women, who are strong, intelligent, and open about their day-to-day struggles, but this is not it.

The above is a repost of a March, 2008 review. These Girls plays Hot Docs on May 7. Check here for schedule and watch the trailer here.

The Canal Street Madam

Cameron Yates | 2010 | 91 mins | US

Sometimes a filmmaker can become so close to their subject that they forget about the elements that actually make the subject compelling to an outsider looking in. Instead, the filmmaker's own experience fills in their film's obvious gaps while several key Ws are ignored, avoided, or forgotten. This possible scenario occurred to me over and over as I watched The Canal Street Madam.

Jeanette Maier was a New Orleans madam who ran a brothel with her mother and daughter that catered to the city's elite. While she was busted and sent to prison following an FBI sting, those elite when untouched and unsullied. Director Cameron Yates picks up with Maier following her release from prison as she tries to make ends meet without being involved in sex work for the first time in many years. She does media appearances, reconnects with her family, and rekindles her entrepreneurial spirit, all with varying degrees of success.

Madam primarily consists of the standard interviews and fly-on-the-wall footage as she goes about her days, but it also contains some interesting video elements culled from Maier's own home movies. They are great additions, depicting parties, the family's Christmas morning, and so on, but certain pieces are needlessly recycled several times until they only serve as a distraction.

The biggest issue I had with the documentary is that it carries on without ever filling in the background details regarding Maier's crimes, arrest, and conviction. We are given some information via local television news clips near the beginning of the movie, but the FBI operation and subsequent trial, though frequently mentioned, is never unpacked. This is a massive oversight. If a documentary can't answer the most pressing questions about a subject, why does it exist?

The rest of Maier's family grants little information either. Aside from her daughter, Maier's family has only fleeting appearances and no real contributions to the story. But since you have her on camera, why not talk with Jeannette's mother about how the two got involved in running a brothel together? How did mom get into prostitution and what did she think of her daughter becoming involved? These may be old stories to friends sitting around the dinner table, but EVERYONE IN THE AUDIENCE wants to know.

There is some good humour in the movie and Jeanette Maier is a compelling character, but with such a thin story the result is a bit of a freak show. While making public appearances Maier frequently states that what happens "between two consensual adults" should be no one else's business, and while I believe that to be true, it is a statement, not an argument. If the film wants to hold up Maier as a victim of injustice and really investigate the issue it keeps trotting out, then there should have been an effort to discuss the prohibition of prostitution and the effect it has had on Maier, her family, and the women she worked with. Vague allusions are not enough to keep this documentary afloat.

The Canal Street Madam plays Hot Docs on May 4 and 6. Check here for schedule and watch the trailer here.

The Parking Lot Movie

Meghan Eckman | 2010 | 74 min | US

Cool boss-who-doesn't-want-to-be-called-boss Chris Farina has assembled a strange colony of men to work in his Charlottesville, Virginia parking lot. Many are philosophers, though anthropologists are also mined as ideal attendants/ students of human nature. The "insanely overeducated" gang work adjacent a university and its associated bars, wiling away the time between jerk-handling with invention and conversation. That is a recipe for some serious theories about cars, man's subservience, and the nature of renting empty space, man.

Presumably an insider among the attendants' circle of friends, director Meghan Eckman captures the theories and gallivanting from unguarded subjects. They often engage in behaviour and conversation, by turns silly and hateful, that one would think they would make an effort to hide from strangers. Luckily, these men possess wonderfully dry senses of humour that transform the dullest of subject matter into a fun visit with people you would like to know better.

If you are among the scores and scores of people doing too little labour with too much brain power you will relate to the attendants' plight and thoroughly enjoy watching their coping mechanisms. They may have achieved the perfect synthesis of work for profit and "hanging." Hanging is a key concept in this doc. Is this what Bob Dobbs meant when he sought Total Slack? Do these guys have it ALL FIGURED OUT? Maybe. Maybe.

The Parking Lot Movie plays the Hot Docs documentary film festival in Toronto on May 1 and 3, with a special garage rooftop screening on May 7. Check here for the schedule and here for the trailer.