Movies

Hot Docs Review: Mr SOUL! (2018, Sam Pollard, Melissa Haizlip)

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs, Movies | Leave a comment

ELLIS HAIZLIP, the Producer of the WNET/PBS weekly television show, "SOUL."  Set interview with Toni Morrison. 1972

Opening up with some archival footage of ads heralding the arrival of colour TV, Mr. SOUL! quickly makes the point that, while everything on TV could now be presented in full glorious colour, the programming itself was still overwhelmingly pretty white. The answer to this: SOUL!

Mr. SOUL! tells the story of the first black arts and culture program to be aired on American television. SOUL! was the brainchild of Ellis Haizlip, his singular vision being to provide a platform for black voices, voices that had not really been given much space on the airwaves up until that time. Originating from New York public broadcaster WNET and airing from 1968 – 1973, SOUL! seemed to consistently challenge itself and its audience from the get-go. Determined not to be just like any other TV show, Haizlip and his team at SOUL! tooled with the formula for awhile before ultimately deciding to just let Haizlip himself host the show.

Airing live much of the time, SOUL! presented many impressive musical performances – everyone from The Lost Poets to Ashford & Simpson to Stevie Wonder to Al Green. Along with many established big name performers, so many musicians were given their first chance on this show, many of them also being acts who wouldn’t have had a chance of being booked on a more mainstream program. One of my favourite stories from the film is Haizlip’s apparent answer upon being asked why he had booked avant-garde jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk on the show: “Because he’s crazy.” It’s true – dude played like three saxes at once. Impressive.

In addition to music, poetry and dance were given equal footing on the show as well as political and cultural discussions – one episode, impressively enough, was just an hour of conversation between James Baldwin and poet Nikki Giovanni filmed in London, England since Baldwin had no interest in returning to America to do an interview. Oh, and also the show featured a 13 year old Arsenio Hall. Was he funny? Who knows – they didn’t really show any footage of him. Still, kinda cool.

Mr. SOUL! presents a loving portrait of a show that was gone all too soon. SOUL! may have been around for only a few years, but in that time, it certainly made an impact.

Screenings:
Sat, May 5, 6:00 PM @ Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema

SxSW Film Review: Science Fair (Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster)

Posted on by Gary in Movies, Reviews, South By Southwest | Leave a comment

science-fair-120085

If I had wanted to start my scientific career with… correction: if I had known that people still consider it meaningful to launch one’s scientific career by going through a pageantry similar to the Westminster Dog Show, I could have marched on and decimated my cynical optimism much more effectively and quit a long time ago.

For those of you unfamiliar with Science Fair, the International Science and Engineering Fair, run by Intel, is an annual convention that plucks kids around the world, together with their nerdy chemical-volcano-equivalent and drop them in front of the relentlessly all-seeing eyes of Sauron. Um, I mean, real expert judges in their respective STEM fields.

I was of course only half joking about the LOTR analogy. Pragmatically, everyone knows that the Science Fair is akin to a gateway-to-Harvard lottery. Once you complete the task, the world is your oyster, and your life will never be the same. Only differences being that you shoulder only your future; an unspeakable evil will not stop taking over both your mind and the world if/when you fail. And like Mario, you have a few tries. And to be perfectly blunt, no one “sciences fairly” at science fairs, either. At least, not if you wish to place or win awards. I would much rather a PhD helms the science program in my school, instead of running a program that tutors elite students to specifically win science fairs. Yet the disparity between true experts and a teenage prodigy can still be devastatingly vast. A unprepared, raw experience can still recall being chased by the Predator, or cowering like the lamb in the jaws of the Jurassic Park T-Rex. So, kids do need guidance – but is it worth the cost of everything else?

All these conflicting lines of thoughts are what make this film so fascinating to watch. Co-directed by a past participant of the Fair (Costantini), Science Fair is an uproarious, hilarious, naive and yet aching look at how we glory in our own (apparent) success in preparing the next generation for the most technologically advanced society humankind has ever seen. While there are really no surprises given the current sociopolitical context, I won’t give anything away about the narrative, except to say that it is the wunderkind characters themselves who really drive the film. How can you not be drawn into the youthful energy focused 123% on curing malaria one moment, 314.159% on head-banging to trap music the next, while holding a religious certainty of your unique significance in the universe? Ostensibly, the film wants to promote the continuation of the Science Fair, as Intel has been decreasing its funding recently. What we should also do, besides rushing to watch this documentary, is to re-live and reflect on whether it is the best way to promote scientific learning. Just remember – your tube-full of all-3-meals each bedridden day at 98 could come with a side of shitty rave music (or perhaps we would all be reprogrammed to love rave music). Shudders all-round.

SxSW Film Review: Constructing Albert [Laura Collado]

Posted on by Gary in Movies, South By Southwest | Leave a comment

Sibling rivalry is not a new phenomenon, nor is it an emotion reserved for the lowest common denominators on Jerry Springer. Even in the rarefied world of haute cuisine, where the names elBulli and Adria recall creative genius operating at an ionospheric level, this is still true. Although Albert Adria has been behind the restaurant elBulli for decades, his culinary talents seemed to have been overshadowed by his brother Ferran’s conceptual overhaul of the language of fine dining. The idea was quite startlingly simplistic: an experimental kitchen whose goal is solely to invent experiences between mouthfuls. The closure of elBulli, however, left Albert literally at a loss. His invisibility behind Ferran and elBulli’s reputation both hampered his ambition to become his own boss. Constructing Albert is the documentary about how they remade his new brand in this long shadow.

In 2013 when Albert (and filming) began, that arduous journey involved opening and coordinating five restaurants in one year. Tickets, 41deg, Pakta, Bodega 1900, and Nino Viejo. Both Tickets and 41deg ended up earning Michelin stars. Having gotten that far, Albert then decided to close 41deg in order to use it as a stepping stone toward a new concept restaurant called Enigma. In this hindsight view, you can really appreciate the way that entrepreneurs in the restaurant world interact with their critics. Bear in mind that these critics are not the Yelping public, but a stratified group of foodies that have somehow garnered the power over life and death. The vocabulary needed to commune with them, while alien, isn’t hard to stomach. I liken it to how academics shape their interests by experimenting with publishing in top journals – just substitute “publications” for “restaurants”. Perhaps the inventions in elBulli in the early 1980s were never meant to earn Michelin stars. But in constructing a new brand and reputation, that is now the first and last thing on the menu.

Describing this on paper makes it seem like simple business decisions. But in reality, people work the kitchen and restaurants. Where the film shines isn’t in the narrative of a brand, but the evolution of the personal stakes everyone involved has wagered, including that of director Laura Collado. During Q&A, she mentioned that the original intent of the documentary was indeed to explore the sibling rivalry, which would have been a short few interviews. Five years later, watching the film in 2018, one’s appreciation of the dynamics between the chefs has to be revised. While I am certain that her footage could have been edited so, a nasty intrigue never materialized. If anything, the film seemed a bit of a muted celebration of Albert. And why not? As if juggling 5 restaurants, 2 Michelin stars, a revolving list of dishes that updates every two months, thousands of ingredients and techniques isn’t entertaining – just looking at the results makes me want to drop $500 on a meal.

Documentary Review: Taming of the Queue (Josh Freed, 2017)

Posted on by Gary in Everything, Movies, Reviews | Leave a comment

Screen-Shot-2016-03-11-at-14.00.11

Taming of the Queue (not the CFHI conference series of the same name, or blog-posts of the same name) is a rather short but succinct documentary on the modern, post-WW2 idea of lining up for services, purchases, transport, and pretty much everything else in life that requires waiting amongst other people. It is a popular psychology attempt at rationalizing common issues with queues and how “researchers and social engineers” have tried to alter the queue-scape.

In 3 chapters and several cardinal rules, Josh Freed tries to generalize the Line-Up as he saw it in different countries. By trying simple tricks to perturb and agitate people, he gets them to spill their beans (or in the case of the British, just their upper-lips) and reveal some of the underlying issues that must be balanced while we wait – do I want to, do I need to, and is it acceptable?

While quite entertaining for its length, I felt that Taming only just scraped the surface in terms of a dialogue on queuing and social etiquette. It highlighted but never explored nor extracted WHY countries have different ideas regarding waiting in line. It’s up to the viewer to spell it out for themselves. Yes, densely-populated countries like India display (to our eyes) a bewildering attitude toward cutting-the-line, but that is not a function of the particular socio-economic stratum itself – it’s a collective social contract that evolved independently. We might as well have concluded from the out-set that Indians have a different culture from the British and let it be. What would be more interesting, instead of small examples like installing mirrors and automated wait-time estimates, would be devoting some screen time to asking how to change the perception of queuing in places where it’s not popular. Because how we react to queues is simply a reflection of the degree to which we prioritize ourselves over other human beings. THAT’s social engineering. That is something that we should think about more than avoiding the issue by automating our social interactions away.

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