Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - High Five: A Suburban Adoption Saga

Martin and Cathy Ward decide that they want to adopt a child.  When we first meet the Surrey B.C pair they have two young girls living with them from the Ukraine to see if they will adapt to their new surroundings. During the visit the Wards learn that the sisters Alyona and Snezhana have three other siblings back in an orphanage in the Ukraine, an older sister plus an older and younger brother. The Wards decide that they will attempt to adopt all five children and bring them to B.C.

Director Julia Ivanova followed the Ward family for 4 years to tell their story.  The Documentary shows the various aspects of adoption in a hyper situation. Firstly the Wards are adopting multiple children, second they are adopting them from a foreign country where English is not the first language. Next none of them are newborns and among them are two are teenagers.  Plus there will be some psychological and cultural issues relating to their harsh upbringing and parenting in the Ukraine vs. Canada. Lastly the financial reality of a jump from a couple to a family of seven is hard to predict.

Martin and Cathy have a great spirit and put all of the efforts into making a safe home for the children.  They next bring all of the children over for a visit but are only able to adopt Alyona and Snezhana at first. The other three have to go back to the Ukraine. A year later they are able to adopt the other three and after extensive renovations to their home the family is united.

The first crack in the family unit is the rivalry between Alyona, Snezhana and Yuliya. The middle daughters were there first and appear to defend their turf against their later arriving elder sister which effects Yulia deeply as being the eldest looked out for her siblings in the past.  Yuliya the former matron of the group appears to like her new dad Martin more and has a rivalry with Cathy and rebels. This coupled with Martin taking a job in the Yukon to earn more money for the family leaving Cathy running the household heightens the tension between the two.

Seeing her attitude leads to a split of the former strong bond with her brother Sergei the second oldest and her only sibling that shares the same father and mother.

Director Ivanova becomes almost the 8th member of the family. She interviews each family member as the tension and conflicts arise. An especially heartbreaking scene is her interview with Alyona, Snezhana and Yuliya when the two younger sisters tell Ivonova straight out that they don't want to play with Yuliya, she can't use their things and they don't want her around.

High Five a Suburban Adoption Saga tells the complicated story of a multiple adoption. It shows that despite well meaning parents personality conflicts, cultural differences and financial consequences can be very difficult to overcome.

Director Julia Ivanova makes this Documentary a personal piece and it's one that I recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4

High Five: A Suburban Adoption Story| Julia Ivanova | Canada | 2013| 95 Minutes.

Hot Docs 2013. 

Tags: Adoption, Ukraine, Sibling Rivalry, Teenage Rebellion, Matriarch, Diplomatic Red Tape.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Bending Steel

The central figure in Dave Carroll bending steel is an awkward person. He does not relate well to other people. When he speaks he puts emphasis on the wrong syllable, leaves too long empty spaces when responding to a question and tends to look down to the ground when engaged in a conversation.

Chris Shoeck exists on the edge of society.  He is a New York City personal trainer by day and spends a lot of time by himself when he is not working.  His fortunes start to change when he begins to bend nails in his cramped basement storage locker area in his attempt to become strongman. He first meets up with Chris Rider a Pennsylvania Strongman nicknamed Haircules known for his long hair and stunts like ripping a phone book or a full deck of cads in two.  Rider teaches Shoeck the proper pacing of his act. To make sure that the audience can see clearly as he works and the key part to display the bent item  to the crowd upon completion of the act. Through Rider Shoeck enters the strongman community and meets some of the legends in the sport and gains the stage name Chris "Wonder" Shoeck due to his ability to bend iron bars despite his small stature.

Director Carroll mixes in old black and white footage of the old master strongmen from the early twentieth century. Showing that at their peak Strongman shows sold out Madison Square Gardens and were a regular feature on Coney Islands.  Most of the filming is a one camera shot with questions coming to the subjects from off camera.  Carroll shoots Shoeck mostly in the corner of the frame and in the shadows. This shooting technique serves to amplify his isolation and loneliness.

Chris does fit in with the Strongman group and becomes one of the performers on a return to Coney Island show that he promotes by giving away flyers on the boardwalk and appearance on an independent radio show that appears to be run out of a store front.

An ongoing sub plot is Shoeck's battle to bend a 2 - inch thick iron bar. He starts to work on the bar in the first act but is unable to budge it at all and continues to try new techniques and angles as the movie progresses. His colleagues encourage him pointing out that bending steel is not about strength but more mind over matter. The bar becomes his holy grail as it's mounted on the wall in his home to be looked at and studied.

The most uncomfortable moments of the Documentary are the two occasions when Chris goes to visit his parents the second of which accompanied by Rider. By they way they speak to each other one would think that they were total strangers. They also show no support of his new activity and when he leaves them tickets for the upcoming Coney Island show it's clear that they will not attend.

Bending Steel is an original story with a quirky protagonist. Carroll lets his subject be himself and the audience can see Shoeck grow as the film progresses and he gains more confidence in is skills. He relaxes as the piece unfolds often conducting his interviews with the director in his favourite was chair smoking a cigar. Director Dave Carroll tells a different kind of story and it is one that I can recommend.

*** out of 4.

Bending Steel | Dave Carroll | U.S.A. | 93 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags:  Introvert, Carnival Performers, Strongman, Coney Island, Loneliness, NYC

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - The Human Scale

Cities, who are they built for is the question that is explored in the Human Scale. Starting from the post world war two area and exploring 4 continents the film explores the decades long move toward the automobile and gives compelling arguments as to why city planners should move away from the catering for the car.

The main voice behind the shift is Danish architect Jan Gehl. He saw the state of the downtown centre of Copenhagen and decided to take a position on a downtown street and watch people. What he found was that Copenhagen had become a space for cars, the people had nowhere to gather or to sit or to comfortably move at a walking pace.  His solution remove cars from the downtown core, along with the parking spaces along the canal replacing them with bike lanes, benches, pedestrian walkways and green spaces to give the space back to the people.

Next the focus is on New York State in the 50's and city planner Robert Moses expansion of the New York State highway system. The result more roads, more cars, more congestion and traffic still did not move. New York has evolved in a 90-10 ratio towards cars while Gehl's philosophy favours people 90-10. The Gehl Architects were hired by the New York Transportation Authority and invited to observe the Times Square area.  The group reached similar conclusions that they had in Copenhagen. Give the space back to the people. Their recommendations led to today's Time Squares featuring outdoor seating, bike paths space, places for the citizens to stop sit and enjoy the area. A cell phone video of an impromptu Christmas time Times Square snowball fight after the changes an ultimate sign of citizens taking back city space.

The original city for the people first philosophy is Sienna, Italy they have many places for people to gather, places to sit and an abundance of pedestrian walkways in the centre of the city. People were meant to gather is groups and not be isolated in suburban single-family dwellings.

The main theme of the Documentary is that the population continues to grow and will reach 6.5 billion by 2050. People continue to move on mass from the country into the cities and the infrastructure cannot support the influx of people unless there is a significant shift. A move is needed from Cities that are based on a 60 km per hour car pace to a 5 km per hour walking pace.

Down in the southern hemisphere the director interviews the city planners in Melbourne. They realized in the 1980's that the city centre was slowly dying. They needed a way to revitalize but did not have the space. The solution:  Use the labyrinth of the back alley spaces that formally housed dumpsters, doorways and loading docks for cafe's which lead to stores and a whole shopping areas in between buildings and the main streets. They were able to shift back the ration in the downtown core to 5% car traffic and raised the pedestrian traffic by 37%.

In Asia the group looks a Dhaka in Bangladesh and the move backed by the IMF to build more roads for vehicles. Local group have appeared to reject this Western idea the city has a population of 10 million and continues to grow.  It's a very fragile location that is always on the verge of a severe earthquake that could reduce many of the city buildings to rubble. The majority of the population will never own cars and the loans from the IMP at exorbitant interest rates will take several lifetimes to repay for roads that will be used by the few.

What would you do if you had the chance to start over? That is the question being asked in Christchurch. The cities downtown core was destroyed by a 2011 earthquake. The public had a say and contrary to the wishes of the banks and big multinationals won height restrictions of six stories with plenty of public places for sitting and gathering along with bicycle paths.

Beautifully shot and well paced The Human Scale brings an important message that will become critical as we march toward the year 2050.  We have to move to cities that are livable healthy and geared again toward Humans that work at eye level and not built to impress travellers in airplanes on final approach. It's a film that I can recommend.

The Human Scale | Andreas Dalsgaard| Denmark| 2013 | 83 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags: City Planning, Architecture, World Cities, Cars vs. People, Population Growth, City Centres, Urban vs. Rural.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - As Time Goes By In Shanghai

Meet the world's oldest Jazz band.  Shanghai's Peace Old Jazz band is based out of the Peace Hotel in Shanghai, China. The band members range in age from 65 to 87. Many of the members have seen several changes in China starting from the World War Two, running through the Cultural Revolution and into modern day Shanghai.

The documentary follow the group as they prepare for a spot in the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam the focal point of a 7 day tour of the Netherlands. The film opens with the group at the Jazz festival looking at the stage and commenting on how big the venue is for their group that is used to playing in a small room in Shanghai.

The film flashes back three months to the preparation of the group for the event. The viewer first gets an in depth look at each band member starting with the leader of the band Old Bao who is an accomplished musician in his eighties that plays drums, clarinet and saxophone. He recounts the visits of the U.S navy band in the 40's and how Jazz was flowing in the ballrooms all around Shanghai.  The clubs all closed in 1953 with the early signs of the Cultural Revolution. Musicians had to then play in secret muffling the sounds of their instruments.

As part of their preparation the group decide to hire a female singer to augment their stage presence. They are looking for someone that can sing the Standards such as In the Mood, As Time Goes By and Sinatra's Fly Me To The Moon along with the Chinese traditional songs. The audition process provides the films best comic moments as the band members openly criticize the short comings of the candidates and each others musical styles plus despite their advanced age show that they are still men as they attempt to impress and chat up the women during their auditions.  The other source of comedy is the banter between the band mates and their manager. Despite booking the concert in Rotterdam the band members act as if he is not needed and eventually do not allow him on the trip opting instead for a local guide in the Netherlands.

The story of band member Old Sun is the most compelling. In his eighties like Old Bao, Sun will not talk much about his past. His musician days date back to the post war era but unlike Bao he was deported during the Cultural Revolution for anti government activities. He also lost the love of his life during this time  a National Party supporter that begged Sun to come with her and her family to Taiwan but he instead chose to stay on the mainland and they never saw each other again.

As Time Goes by In Shanghai is a strong narrative and living historical document of China and Shanghai spanning 70 years. The music is a great mix of Jazz and Chinese traditional songs. However the highlight of the film is the interplay, banter bickering and true friend ship between the band members themselves.  This is a film that I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2 Out of 4

As Time Goes By in Shanghai | Uli Gaulke | Germany/ Netherlands | 2013 | 90 Minutes. 

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival. 

Tags: Shanghai, Jazz, The Peace Hotel, North Sea Jazz Festival, Seniors, Chinese Cultural Revolution, The National Party.

Film Review - Star Trek - Into Darkness

J.J. Abrams and the Bad Robot crew take their second shot at the Star Trek Universe with Star Trek
Into Darkness. The timing of this film is a little different from the normal 2-year sequence of sequels.  Into Darkness appears 4 years after it's 2009 predecessor and gives the impression that Abrams and the Bad Robot team did not want to rush but instead took their time to get the film right.  The good thing about sequels and especially those of an iconic franchise it that the first movie already introduced the characters and their inter relationships therefore it's right to the action.

Opening with the Enterprise crew on an observatory mission of a primitive tribal society. The Enterprise crew decide to help when they realize that the civilization is threatened by it's own environment.  Their decision is contrary to the prime directive on which Star Fleet is based. Upon their return to Star Fleet headquarters in San Francisco Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zackery Quinto) both are disciplined for their actions.

In a bit of a departure we see a Star Trek installation on earth outside of the U.S.  A good part of the first act takes place in London where we are introduced Jonathan Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) a mysterious figure that is willing to assist a Star Fleet officer with his family health issue for a price.

Pacing is a key element to this film. Kurtzman, Lindelof and Orci's script keeps the action coming on a regular basis. The scrip also has a couple of nods to Abrams next project that also has the word Star in the title. In one Kirk, Spock and Uhura ( Zoe Saldana) are in a shuttle that looks suspiciously like the Millennium Falcon being chased by a patrol. In attempt to escape pilot Kirk takes the shuttle towards a narrow passage and debates openly with Spock whether or not the shuttle will fit into the tight space.

Cinematographer Daniel Mindel work is notable on this film. The visuals are sharp and similar to his work on the 2009 reboot the piece has to be one of the brightest out there in recent memory. The first time the Enterprise appears fully on screen then heads into warp leaving the signature trail is stunning. However there are some issues with the 3D version as in some frames the early part of the film the action moves faster than the technology.

The stories main thread centres on the enemy within. The role of villain shifts during the film however the narrative never verges far from this main theme. Distrusting superiors until you dig a little deeper for more information on your own is also prevalent. Michael Kaplan's costume design also picks up on these dark ideas.  Opposed to the iconic yellow, blue and red Start Trek uniforms the cast wears a collection of black and grey totalitarian looking outfits. The dress uniform at Star Fleet headquarters is  charcoal with hats that harken back to armies or secret police of the mid 40's. James Harrison is clothed in a dark cloak in one of the early fighting scenes then continues dressed in black for the rest of the film.

The main actors continue to grow into their roles in this second outing and it's evident that the writing team tried to find at least a moment for each of the main characters to shine.  One of the stronger instants is Sulu's (John Cho) speech while occupying the Captains Chair. The current reboot has created a new triumvirate of Kirk and Spock with Uhura replacing Bones as the third member.  However Bones (Karl Urban) has some memorable moments in the film notably in an away mission with the new science officer (Alice Eve) where they're tasked to diffuse a volatile object. Cumberbatch is an excellent choice as the shadowy Harrison who is equally adept in the lab as he is in battle. The key to any sequel is a strong villain. Harrison is more than a match for Kirk and Spock, an enemy squadron attempting to oppose him or Peter Weller's hawkish head of Star Fleet Admiral Marcus.

Two important elements of an action film are sound and editing. Both are categories are handled well.  Sound is key in many scenes especially during the warp speed chase. Perhaps the best edit in the production in a transition scene from London to San Francisco focused on an item falling into a drinking glass in each location.

Star Trek Into the Darkness has all the elements of a summer popcorn movie excellent pacing, relentless action and images that need to be seen on the big screen. If you're not a trekker or a hard core fan of the original series then this film is aimed at you. However if your niche is the original Star Trek and the traditional roles of the holy trinity of Kirk, Spock and Bones then you may find the film a bit lacking. Overall as someone who really came on board with The Next Generation it's a film that I can recommend.

*** out of 4

Star Trek | Into the Darkness | J.J. Abrams | U.S.A. | 2013 | 132 Minutes.

Tags: Sci-fi, enemy within, Iconic Series, Trekkers, Prime directive, terrorism, totalitarianism.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Good Ol' Freda

Silicone valley is full of secretaries, janitors and receptionist who were original employees at a start up and became millionaires when those companies went public. The entertainment world  is famous for former assistants, publicist and bodyguards who take an advance and write a tell all book about their celebrity employer. Freda Kelly has none of these qualities. She was the only Secretary that  the Beatles ever had and later became their Fan Club manager.  Kelly was a very private person who did not tell her story until more than 40 years after her association with the band ended.

Freda worked in a typing pool in 1963 Liverpool having left school at 16. She was invited by two of her colleagues to go to the Cavern Club for lunch and saw one of the Beatles early shows at the club. After the first visit she was hooked and became a fixture at the lunch time sets and well known to all of the band members and their manager Brian Epstein. Therefore it was a natural fit when Epstein set up his office on the second floor of his fathers store Mems to hire Frieda as his secretary.

Director Ryan White presents an excellent tale and brings out all of Freda's qualities. She was a fan of the band but not a fanatic. Did her job well and always had the band members and fans best interest at heart. Shot mainly in a one camera interview style with questions coming from off screen Freda tells her story and lets her personality come out. Her account is very straight forward but deliberately cryptic when she discusses her individual relationship with each Beatle. One great passage is her description of Ringo's request to have her help him to answer his fan mail.  Freda would not do it herself but agreed to come round to his home and give his mother a few pointers.  It turned out he had 9 letters and that initial visit started a close relationship with Freda and Ringo's then the other Beatles parents.

Filled with old photos and stills of the band the film brings you right back to the height of Beatlemania. Especially poignant are the behind the scene shots in the Cavern Club during the lunch time performances. A key point was when Paul no longer wanted Frieda to refer to him as a Beatle when she put updates on his activities in the Official Beatles Fan Club Newsletter. While around the same time John was off doing the bed in with Yoko Ono in Montreal. Freda tells part of her story as she looks through a few boxes that she has kept in her attic She reads from a Beatles newsletter all that start with Dear Beatle People and end with Lots of Good Luck and Tarrah for now.

Freda talks of the memorabilia that she had in her office which she gave all away as in her mind it belonged to the fans. Two other quick points on her character were her attempt to slip in her autograph book for a signature but did not want to say who the autographs were for or when she fired all of her assistants when one tried to put in her own hair to send to a fan claiming that it was Paul's.

Freda Kelly had the dream job of any young Liverpudlian. Still working as a secretary for a law firm today. She did not take advantage of her position and presents a unique inside view of the Beatles and their families that even her family did not know many of the details until the making of the documentary.  Good Ol' Freda is a film that I can recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

Good Ol' Freda | Ryan White | U.S.A. | 2013 | 86 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags: Beatles, Music, Liverpool, the 60's, Founding Employees.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne

Opening at a San Diego Courthouse we meet Jean a senior citizen who's best friend is on trial for theft of an emerald ring from a Macy's department store. Her friend Doris Payne who is 81 years old and could easily be anyone's sweet grandmother. This is where Directors Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina catch up with Ms. Payne and begin to tell her life story.

Doris Payne grew up in West Virginia in the segregated south, born to a black father and a Cherokee Mother. Here father was abusive to her mother and Doris often saw and heard the results of their fights. As a reward for good grades her mother agreed to buy Doris a new watch. She was in the jewellery store trying on various pieces when a white man entered the store and demanded that she leave. During the confusion and commotion as the distracted Jeweller complied and turned Doris out he forgot that she still had on an expensive watch. Doris alerted the Jeweller at the doorway. The incident was the chance event that started her method of thievery, midsection and distraction.

In a series of interviews Payne tells the stories of her greatest heists starting with trains trips to Chicago and New York for jobs then switching to flights to Japan, London and Monte Carlo to apply her craft. Doris Payne is a fascinating subject. She draws you in with a smile, turn of phrase or a gesture. An exceptional actress she could play any role required to get into a position where she was alone with a disarmed sales clerk with thousands of dollars with of Jewellery laid out for her to inspect. In addition to the interviews the Documentary features recreations to support the narrative.

The Directors do not always glamorize the subject. They show the real daily life of the 81 year old Payne complaining of breathing problems but still continuing to smoke. She is living in a half way house where she has to check in and out and shares a room with a roommate. Even at a local fair she checks out the trinket rings and cant help her nature and walks away with one in her pocket. They focus in on the fact that if she is found guilty and has to serve 5 years the verdict would be just about a death sentence for Payne at her advanced age with her current medical conditions. She has two children a son who has a history of drug problems and a daughter who agreed to be interviewed but her identity is kept hidden.

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne is captivating look at a life long a jewel thief who is on trial for her life. Payne a masterful manipulator and charmer swears that she didn't do it and wants her day in court. She also claims to have stolen 2 million dollars in Jewellery and spent every penny. This is a documentary driven by the feisty personality of a singular individual and a film that I can recommend.

*** out of 4.

The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne | Matthew Pond and Kirk Marcolina | 2013 | U.S.A. | 73 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags:  Crime, Jewel Theft, Segregation, Heists, Jet setting, Court Case.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Muscle Shoals

There's something in that mud declares Bono in the opening interview of Muscle Shoals. The area hits musicians in the gut to drag out songs anchored by deep base guitar and base drums. As Bono speaks of the region Director Greg Camalier switches to a shot of the Tennessee River that runs through the town followed by a view of the deep rich thick forests and woods in the area.  Chalked full of just most  major artists in the U.S from the early 60's through the mid 70's plus a few A listers from across the pond. Muscle Shoals was a destination that the leading acts of the day felt that they had to get to and record music. As one major act left the next one landed to take their place.  It's a place that's all about the music, musicians are left alone its pretty quiet and hard to be distracted. The bands travelled from the studio to the hotel and could focus on their craft.

So how does a sleepy Alabama outpost become a must for Musicians ranging from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones? The Muscle Shoals Sound is the vision of producer Rick Hall the founder of FAME Recording Studios. Hall opened the studio and recruited local musicians who were playing around town or just fresh from doing high school or square dances to form the Fame Rhythm Section. It was Hall's idea to mike the base drum separately which had never been done before.  Hall's life story is full of personal tragedy it appears that he put the tragedy's aside and focused on the music and the studio gaining the reputation as a legendary taskmaster that would push for that perfect sound. He couldn't  always articulate what he wanted but knew when he heard it and if it took 40 attempts to get there then thats what they did.

The first international hit artist for Fame Studios was Percy Sledge. Percy was from nearby Leighton, Alabama and had picked cotton in the fields and worked as an orderly. He came into the studio and began to sing as he had always done in the field the sessions at Fame let to When a Man Loves a Woman.  Sledge was followed by Wilson Pickett then Aretha Franklin a new Atlantic Artist who was sent to Muscle Shoals to work with Hall due to his deal with the label. The resulting sessions led to I'd Never Loved a Man (The Way I Loved You) and eventually the Fame Rhythm Section also known as the Swampers headed to New York to finish her album backing Franklin on one of the most classic soul albums of the 60's that included her biggest hit Respect.

The dynamic in the studio was polar opposite to the reality of the time. Alabama is the State where Governor George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door and black people had to address white citizens as Mr. and Mrs. In the Fame studio none of that existed. Everyone worked together equally to get to the music leading to a white rhythm section that played on many of the biggest soul records from the mid 60's through the mid 70's.

The essence of the film are the songs themselves and the old footage and photos from the recording sessions.  The piece is full of classic music: Wilson Picket's Land of a 1000 Dances and Mustang Sally, the Rolling Stones Wild Horses and Brown Sugar plus The Staple Singers I'll Take You There to name a few. Not to be missed is The Wilson Pickett / Duane Allman impromptu version of Hey Jude that Rick Hall labeled the start of Southern Rock due to Dwayne Allman's slide guitar work on the track.

Muscle Shoals is joyful ride that will delight the senses. Beautifully shot with the blues of the Tennessee river, the browns of the swamp and the mud plus the lush greens of the forest and hills surrounding the town. As the line goes from Sweet Home AlabamaNow Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/And they've been known to pick a song or two.  Audience Members will be keeping beat to the music throughout the film and leave the theatre singing or humming one or two of the many legendary songs.

**** out of 4.

Muscle Shoals | Greg Camalier | U.S.A. | 2013|111 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags: Soul Music, Alabama, Muscle Shoals Sound, Biography, Southern Rock, Music Industry Politics.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Valentine Road

Oxnard California is a town that in the past was only really known to its residents. It was a sign on the highway on the way to Los Angeles that might catch a motorist's eye on the trip into the big city.  The events of February 12th 2008 brought the town to national attention and changed the lives of many community members forever.

Director Martha Cunningham crafts a riveting film starting with eyewitness accounts from the grade 7 and 8 students that were in the computer class on that fateful day. The students recount arriving at school that morning remembering that it was a typical day. Then many heard a pop which they thought may have been a balloon only to realize that one of their classmates Lawrence Larry King a 15 year old LGBT student had been shot then the shooter fellow classmate Brandon McInerney dropped the weapon and fled the classroom. Next we move to the police drawings of the classroom showing where each student was seated at the time of the shooting with King and McInerney's names printed in bold followed by the crime scene pictures of the room itself in raw detail.

What develops after the shooting is an extremely polarizing case.  The first aspect was how would the prosecutors handle the case? California had a new law on the books proposition 21. The law was aimed at gang members. The gangs had figured out long ago that as long as their violent actions were carried out by members14 years of age or younger they would be tried as a juvenile, which meant shorter and easier sentences.  Prop 21 gave the courts the option to try 14 year olds as adults for murder. The next question was whether or not this was a momentary loss of reason by a kid that felt he had no other option to ward off unwanted advances from a classmate or a well thought out pre-meditated hate crime. The State and law enforcement believed that this was a hate crime and McInerney should be tried as an adult and entered charges to that effect.

Cunningham uses a lot of closed circuit video from the school, police interrogation and prison cameras as part of the movie. The documentary also points to the slow speed of justice in California, as it is 3 years of delays and appeals until the case finally goes to trial. Cunningham also takes every opportunity to highlight the beachfront nature of Oxnard. She uses shots of the beach, sand and surf in many transition shots along with one spectacular frame of a California sunset.

Along with the eyewitness accounts of the students in the class the presentation includes several first person accounts from friends and family on both sides. Since Larry was adopted most of his story is told by classmates, a good friend from his group home and the teacher from the class in which the event occurred. Brandon's girlfriend, half brother and mother tell his story.

Despite appearing to be polar opposites the two boys had a lot in common. Friends on both sides recounted evidence of physical abuse on both boys. Larry was adopted had a legal guardian and had lived in a group home.  Brandon was living with his grandfather, as his father was very violent while his mother went in and out of rehab with her drug problems.

The last aspect of this film that is a recurring theme in these type of cases is the tactic of putting the victim on trial. As the court case progresses the comments and actions of grown adults will leave the audiences speechless and shaking their heads.

Valentine Road is a highly charged presentation that will affect audiences emotionally. It's a film that I can highly recommend and once viewed will compel audience members to start a conversation with your friends, family and community as a whole.

**** out of 4.

Valentine Road | Marta Cunningham | U.S.A | 87 Minutes.

Hot Docs 2013 Film Festival.

Tags: Murder, Hate Crime, Jury Trial, LGBT Youth, California Laws, School Shooting, Beach Community.

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Blackfish

The screen is dark the date February 24, 2010, flashes up briefly followed by crackling then a panicked voice is heard over the telephone line. There has been an accident at Sea World. One of the trainers has been injured severely help is needed right away. The trainer in question Dawn Brancheau had been  dragged into the water by Killer Whale Tilikum .

To find out the reasons for the occurrence Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite takes us back to the past to learn the background of Killer Whales in captivity and by extension the story of Tilikum starting with the 1970 Killer Whale capture in Puget Sound Washington. The Orcas were chased by boat and helicopter each group having their own tactics for and to avoid capture. The hunters eventually honed in on the mothers and children.  The young whales being the ultimate targets.

Next the scene shifts to the Norwegian Sea off the East coast of Iceland for footage of the 1983 capture of a then 3 year old Tilikum.  The documentary continues to build Tilikum's history detailing his time at Sealand a park near Victoria B.C. where he spent three quarters of the day in a 20-30 unlit steel box with two larger female whales that bit and poked at him constantly.

It was at Sealand where Tilikum had his first serious incident with a trainer. A former Sealand trainer and two eye witnesses of tell the story of the February 21, 1991, death of trainer Keltie Byrne who lost her footing and fell into the tank with the whales. She was passed back and forth between the whales and eventually drowned. The trainer and witnesses are visibly upset as they present the facts of the case. Shortly after the incident the park shut down Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld.

The Documentary is full of first party accounts from former SeaWorld employees on the conditions at the park, the near misses and the aftermath of the Dawn Brancheau incident. The Trainers are all at first thrilled to have worked at Seaworld describing it as their dream job. However as they see how the Orca's are treated, the fact that they often do not get along and how the company line on their lives differ drastically from similar animals in the wild they change their minds. Contrary to Sea World jargon it is not normal for a Killer Whale to have a collapsed dorsal fin. Killer Whales do not live for 25-30 years as described by Sea World staff but instead in the wild the males can live to 60 and the females to 100.

The most fascinating aspects of the piece are the motion capture recordings of incidents and close escapes.  The most dramatic being the 2006 near drowning attack on trainer Ken Peters by killer whale Kasatka. A chilling piece of video that shows Kasatka holding one of Peters' feet in her mouth then repeatedly bringing him down under the water until he is able to calm the whale down and swim to safety. The response of the trainers to these incidents is even more incredible. They are not panicked or slowly realizing that they are about to die. Rather they are upset at the Orca thinking why are you doing this I thought we had a relationship.  More likely as some of the former SeaWorld employees have now come to realize the whales were just doing as directed to get fish knowing if they did not they would not get fed.

Blackfish is a well presented piece that provides accounts from park staff, whale experts and safety experts on the marine park industry. This is a multi billion dollar industry that is based on animals in unnatural living environments and the work of trainers who are unaware or blind to the dangers they face on a daily basis. It's a film that I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4.

Blackfish | Gabriela Cowperthwaite | U.S.A. | 83 Minutes.

Hot Docs Film Festival 2013.

Tags: Killer Whale, Orca, Sea World, Whale Human Attack, Animal Cruelty, Whale Hunting.

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - Rent A Family Inc.

Director Kaspar Astrup Schroder came up with the idea for Rent a Family Inc. on one of his many trips to Japan. He was looking through the classifieds and noticed the unusual items that were available for rent. The papers had dogs that could be rented for an hour to take them for a walk in the park. The paper also had a section for renting people.  Intrigued Schroder contacted Ryuichi who owned a business I Want To Cheer You Up Ltd. The business is run though a web site and a cell phone. Ryuichi will rent himself out as a father, husband, boss, colleague or even get together a group to serve as one side of the family for a wedding.

Ryuichi is the father of two boys who does not have a great relationship with his family. He hardly speaks to his wife. They live in small cramped quarters outside of Toyko. His oldest son now sleeps with his mother in the bed that Ryuichi bought for himself so he could get a good nights sleep. Father's day goes by each year unnoticed while mother's day is a big deal in the household. His family had no idea about his business.  His wife does not care what he does as long as he brings home money to support the family. The only affection that Ryuichi gets at home is from the small family dog Chappi.

Schroder interviews Ryuichi using a one camera shot with the questions coming from out of the frame. Ryuichi admits that he is lonely and has thoughts of suicide. Money is always an issue and if he dies his family would get to keep the home. His wife is interviewed in the same fashion using a Japanese translator. She recounts that the only way she knows that he has changed jobs is based on the new delivery company uniform that she finds in the wash. Schroder also injects Japanese shows into the film one of which has Ryuichi on as a guest, identity hidden to give details of his business. The shows are loud, extremely busy, visually stimulating and speak to the main social and cultural issues of the day.

The film recounts four I Want to Cheer You Up assignments. In the first Ryuichi plays the new husband of a woman that wants her ex to pay child support and give her control of the funds. Her ex had always refused to do so in the past but with Ryuichi playing the role of the new husband and pointing out that he has to take on responsibility for the children the ex agrees to let the client control the funds for the kids.

The most elaborate job is the assignment to provide the entire brides side of a wedding. Ryuichi plays an Uncle of the bride and a highlight of the film is the group going over their roles on the train ride to the wedding getting their names and back stories straight. The wedding goes off with a few hitches and mistakes but the troop are generally moved by the ceremony many crying at the event.

Rent a family Inc is a unique look into Japanese culture. The need for individuals to seek approval from others and an underlying tone that people are aware that something is not right with the situation but go along to get along. It's a film that I can recommend.

*** out of 4

Rent a Family Inc. | Kaspar Astrup Schroder | Denmark | 2013 | 77 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags: Classifieds, Renting people, Stand Ins, Secret Job, Dysfunctional Family, suicide, Japanese culture, Japanese Television.

Hot Docs 2013 Film Review - The Women and the Passenger

Four chambermaids tell their personal stories of love, marriage, relationships and life in The Women and the Passenger. They work at El Passjero a motel that rents rooms by the hour and refer to the ever changing guests as passengers.  Housekeeping is always busy at motel El Passjero as check out time is more frequent than the 12-noon departure time one would expect at a normal hotel. The women also encounter different refuse to what is usually left in the standard hotel room. Each employee tells her story in a straight forward manner that is free of titillation or judgment of the guests that come to the hotel.

The film follows the women through their work day. Elisabeth recounts her split with her husband as she explores the various positions of the sex chair in the room that she's cleaning. Carina discusses the fact that her husband is younger than her and he was the popular kid in the neighbourhood when they met.  Maria's been married for 33 years and seems to have the most stable relationship amongst the four. Patricia divulges that she is self conscious when she has sex with her husband because her kids sleep in the room next door.

Directors Patricia Correa and Valentina Mac-Pherson use several appealing shooting techniques in the film.  The opening sequence of the women entering the change room to don their uniforms for the day is a long take without sound and extreme close ups on the women, their faces, their lockers, their uniforms and varying body parts.  The shots where the women encounter hotel guest to bring them room service or other items is shot at a low angle from the far length of the hallway. We hear the conversations but never see any of the guests. Naturally there is also the regular sound of sexual activity emanating throughout the hotel.

The women give glimpses into their lives as they move throughout the hotel during the day.  The interviews are conducted in the hotel rooms often with the subject lying on the bed or as in one memorable scene Elizabeth rolls around on a water bed as she recounts her reunion with her husband.

The women clean mirrors, change the sheets, fluff pillows, find the odd left behind trinket and clean up illicit substances in the rooms. The hotel is rich with colour which enhances the presentation. There is no shortage of neon at El Passjero especially red, green, purple and pink.

Women and the Passenger is an unconventional drama that answers a question that many people have when visiting a dodgy establishment.  I wonder whose job it is to clean up this place?  This Documentary is not for everyone but it's well done and deals with the subject matter without sensationalizing.

** 1/2 out of 4.

The Women and the Passenger | Patricia Correra /Valentina Mac-Pherson | Chile | 45 Minutes.

2013 Hot Docs Film Festival.

Tags: Love, Marriage, Relationships, Chile, Motel, Rent by the Hour, Blue Collar.