Pick of the Litter

October 1, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Directed by: Don Hardy Jr. (“Theory of Obscurity”) and Dana Nachman (“Batkid Begins”)
Written by: Dana Nachman (“Batkid Begins”)

If Animal Planet was as smart as a Border Collie, it would figure out a way to adapt the crowd-pleasing and educational documentary “Pick of the Litter” into a reality show. Sure, the cable network already has plenty of programs that fill the category like “Pit Bulls and Parolees” and “My Cat from Hell,” but none currently feature the pets going fluffy head to fluffy head in a thrilling competition (the hit TV show “Puppy Bowl” doesn’t count because puppies, contrary to popular belief, can’t really play football).

In “Pick of the Litter,” five newborn Labradors — Patriot, Potomac, Primrose, Poppet and Phil — are placed in a training program with the California-based nonprofit Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB) to become guide dogs for the visually impaired. While the training program isn’t a competition, directors Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman have a little fun in the doc by arranging the 20-month-long process into a tail-wagging battle royale where the five pups put their skills to the test in order to make it to graduation day and be placed with a new owner.

The idea works surprisingly well since becoming a guide dog for GDB is incredibly difficult. According to the organization, only 300 of the 800 dogs bred annually will complete the training program as guide dogs. And demand is high. Each year, GDB receives 1,100 applications from potential dog owners. By setting up the film as a friendly contest, “Pick of the Litter” is more enjoyable for moviegoers who are interested in rooting for their favorite pooch — from Phil and his easygoing lease on life to Patriot who is a bit of a biter.

Like any gripping reality show competition, “Pick of the Litter” also comes with other heartwarming stories about the men and women who are working together to get each dog to meet its goals. This includes the volunteer “puppy raisers” who care for the pups for a few months before they transition to more experienced trainers called “puppy club leaders.” Most of the trainers have uplifting stories to tell about why they enjoy raising and training dogs. The narrative gets emotional during the more touching scenes when some of the pups are cut from the program (GDB labels these dogs “career changed”).

As cheerful and affectionate as the humans are in the story, the dogs, of course, are the true stars of “Pick of the Litter.” Watching the five showcased here — from their entry into the world as yappy little fuzzballs to these incredibly intelligent animals — is a wonderful testament to the services provided by GDB, which have changed thousands of lives since its inception in 1942. For that, “Pick of the Litter” certainly deserves its fair share of tummy rubs.

May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers

September 12, 2017 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

Directed by: Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio
Starring: Scott Avett, Seth Avett

Early on in “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers,” mega-producer Rick Rubin discusses how traditionally, when bands are comprised of siblings, they tend to hate each other. Obvious omission of Oasis aside, Rubin’s point remains that the closeness of working together and the struggle for creative control can break bonds as thick as blood. Throughout the film, however, we see what Rubin means firsthand, as the Avett Brothers are clearly the exception to the rule.

Directed by comedy producer/director extrodainnare, Judd Apatow as well as Michael Bonfiglio, “May It Last” chronicles the writing, production and release of the Avett Brothers’ 2016 album True Sadness.

As far as music documentaries go, there isn’t a lot of conflict. Band members aren’t screaming at each other or talking behind each others backs, nobody is getting kicked out, and there’s no debauchery to be found. Instead what we see is a peak behind the curtain of not only the Avett family, but the creation of a new album from the ground up. Some of the best studio footage shows the Avett’s working through new songs, suggesting lyrics to each other and organically creating. It’s a really interesting look at how songs are composed and evolve from an idea, to laying them down on the album, to performing them live.

From the get-go, it is clear that the Avett’s are the type who wear their hearts on their sleeves. For better or worse, what they are feeling is expressed through their music, and the band feeds off of catharsis. It is these moments, where the Avett’s open up, that are what makes the film truly special.

Seth, for example, explores the depths of heartache and despair following his divorce in a traditional sounding and extremely catchy song “Divorce Separation Blues.” The best sequence of the film, however, comes during the recording of the song “No Hard Feelings.” The entire take of the recording unfolds, with pure feeling oozing out of Seth and Scott. When the take ends, Seth in particular is emotionally drained as the brothers are complimented on how great the song is. What follows is a fascinating conversation between Seth, Scott, and the man behind the camera about the uncomfortable conflict with being congratulated for completing a song that was born of suffering. It’s an entirely new perspective on music in general that is worth the price of admission alone.

There are times that “May It Last” feels more like a behind-the-scenes companion piece that may be included with their new album. But as the film evolves, it is clear that audiences are getting a uniquer glimpse into the creative process of two immensely talented artists with a singular vision and a gift for expression. Existing fans of the Avett Brothers may get a bit more out of it, but “May It Last” stands on its own as a successful foray into why music, and especially deeply personal music, is so important.

Step

August 18, 2017 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Paula Dofat, Blessin Giraldo, Cori Grainger
Directed by: Amanda Lipitz (debut)

One of the more complicated things in the world of documentary filmmaking is being able to not only make your subjects, topics and narratives interesting to watch, but to also be able to give them enough context to be impactful on multiple levels. With “Step,” director Amanda Lipitz takes a seemingly singular subject matter, a high school step dancing team, and deftly explores the socio-economic and political undertone surrounding its events.

As an all girls school in Baltimore, Maryland, The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women has one goal in mind: for all of its attendees to be accepted into and graduate from college. Though academics are of utmost importance, for many girls, the step dancing (chants and vocals mixed in with creating percussive sounds with body movements like stomping or slapping) team is the primary outlet of artistic expression, frustration, and camaraderie. Through the eyes of several subjects, the school year is documented as some girls thrive and some girls struggle to find their next step in life.

When viewing “Step,” it’s hard to not pull parallels to 2011 Oscar winning documentary “Undefeated.” Like the football players in Manassas, this step dancing team is one of the only outlets for these girls. With the stresses of school, energy and emotion comes pouring out during practices and competitions and you can see the passion in every movement. Beyond that, their education is, for some, the only way out of not only the town that could be holding them back, but the cyclical nature of family history. Many of these girls are the first in their families to go to college, and some of the most effective scenes of the film show the gravity of just how important breaking this educational barrier is.

There are also subjects who run themselves ragged for these kids, often times when the students don’t quite understand not only the gravity of the situation, but the ways in which they are being helped. These counselors, coaches, teachers and parents are often brought to tears with the possibility that some of these girls maybe prone to getting in their own way of success, or not giving enough effort to make it into college.

“Step” is an enriching glimpse into a culture that is fiery, passionate, and at times, an expression of pent of frustration of very timely cultural and political situations. But beyond that, it’s a very humanistic story about not just the strive for excellence, but breaking cycles and going further than generations before you…all while being gracious towards the groundwork that has been laid.

Where to Invade Next

February 19, 2016 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Michael Moore, Krista Kruiu, Tim Walker
Directed by: Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11”)

As a public figure, it’s no secret that Michael Moore is extremely divisive. Outspoken and loaded with conviction, most of his films seem to be received in the same way: extremely one-sided, but with interesting talking points. With his latest film, “Where To Invade Next,” Moore fits his MO perfectly.

Despite the rocky setup of being sent to “invade” foreign countries to steal their good ideas, the first few segments of the film are fascinating and somewhat light. Moore goes to Italy to learn about the amount of paid vacation they get, explores the gourmet student lunches in France and free college education Slovenia. The cultural gaps are extremely interesting through American eyes, as Moore’s goal appears to be to simply point out the differences. For the most part, news of the American ways are met with horrified looks from the foreign natives, which is a worthwhile glimpse into the perception that outsiders have of the United States versus reality.

From there, however, things become uneven and borderline preachy. After relatively non-political subjects, Moore takes the middle of the movie to investigate Germany, spending a big chunk of time on the Holocaust and past sins of American history. It’s an unbelievably jarring 180-degree turn, which is immediately followed up by a segment on how the prison system in the U.S. is, in Moore’s terms, “a new form of slavery.” As the tone shifts to pure seriousness, Moore’s viewpoints, agree or disagree, steer the rest of the film and the agendas of his filmmaking begin to emerge.

Nonetheless, Moore still touches on some interesting subjects in the second half, including a look into the astonishing prison system in Norway. The footage here is probably the most shocking (though not graphic) segment in the film. It also feels like a missed opportunity on Moore’s part. This illustrates perhaps the biggest difference in cultures in the film, and one that many American’s might be mortified by. Rather than dig in deep to the psyche of it all, Moore asks leading, softball questions that make the segment feel like a bit of a letdown.

Another thing that gets in the way of “Where To Invade Next” is Moore himself. By inserting himself into the proceedings, he becomes a figure that removes any and all objectivity from the film. One could argue that that is the point of a documentary, but if Moore is looking to make strong points about the ways in which other countries are doing things better than America, the agenda should, at the very least, be given a back seat to the information.

Moore’s attitude makes it so that his sarcasm comes off as mean-spirited and elitist rather than playful. It’s easy to imagine Moore smirking as he wrote a lame and outdated Dick Cheney joke smack dab in the middle of the film. No surprise, the joke lands with a thunderous thud.

Though the set up is dumb, there’s no question that there is some very interesting footage in “Where To Invade Next.” As one might expect, one sided and in the end, very agenda driven. It would have been nice to see Moore explore whether these things were possible in the United States and if so, how they could be implemented. If the film were merely a look at cultural differences, it would have been an educational, mind-opening slam dunk. Instead, by inserting himself so firmly into the narrative, Moore created an unfunny and uneven documentary that ultimately he can’t save from himself.

David Thorpe – Do I Sound Gay?

July 5, 2015 by  
Filed under Interviews

Ever since he can remember, David Thorpe, a gay man and filmmaker from Brooklyn, New York, has never been comfortable with his effeminate-sounding voice. In hopes of understanding his insecurities and possibly training himself to sound “less gay,” Thorpe made the documentary “Do I Sound Gay?” Through interviews with friends and family, speech therapists and linguists, and celebrities including David Sedaris, George Takei and Tim Gunn, Thorpe examines what it means to “sound gay” and the stigma attached to one’s voice. He spoke to me last week about his new film.

“Do I Sound Gay?” will be available on VOD July 10.

Where are you now in terms of accepting your voice? Has that changed since making the film?

It has changed a tremendous amount since beginning the project. I’m much more comfortable with my voice and what it represented, which was this internalized homophobia and leftover shame about being gay. With that said, I still have moments where I’m self-conscious and I have to bat away that reflex where I think I don’t sound masculine enough.

When do you feel the most self-conscious?

You know, it kind of sneaks up on me. It might be when a stranger talks to me. Sometimes it is around other gay men where maybe I want to appear more attractive. It’s a little bit arbitrary where it comes from. But now I’m much more able to remind myself that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

What kind of response are you getting from other gay men?

I think the reaction has been overwhelmingly supportive. I hope that’s a tribute to the film because it lays out all the reasons for my insecurities. I hope people see my desire for empowerment, but also my struggles to be empowered. People from all backgrounds, not just gay men, have actually shared their struggles about their voices and aspects of themselves they weren’t comfortable with. It’s been really gratifying to talk to people about their accents or voices that are specific to the area they’re from. When we’re in the south, we would talk about what it means to have a southern accent. When I was in the U.K., we talked about the different accents they have there and how they have stigma and status attached to them. The goal of the film was to say something universal through my own personal story. Voice is sort of a metaphor for all the aspects of ourselves we don’t necessarily find informing to our imaginary ideals.

In the film, you go through a few exercises with speech therapists to see if they can help you sound “less gay.” Did you go into this project thinking you might come out at the end sounding more like Sylvester Stallone?

(Laughs) Yeah, I genuinely was unhappy with my voice in the same way someone is unhappy with their body. I thought I could sound more masculine. I had been uncomfortable with my voice for so long. I just wanted to deal with the issue once and for all. If that meant I was going to be happier sounding like a more typical man, I just wanted to get it over with. I’ve been out of the closet for 20 years, so I figured it was worth a try.

When you’re deciding on whether or not to date someone, is their voice a make-or-break deal for you?

(Laughs) Voice really isn’t a big deal to me at all. I’ve had boyfriends who have sounded more effeminate than me. I’ve had boyfriends who sound more masculine. The boyfriend who dumped me when the film begins was one of the more effeminate guys I had dated.

How do you feel about how the word “gay” has changed over the years? It’s not politically correct say something like, “That’s so gay” if it’s being used as a negative statement. Do you think society has become oversensitive about this specific word or do we need that unwritten rule?

Yeah, using the word “gay” is no longer 100 percent acceptable. I just watched the movie “Ted,” which I enjoyed, but there is a lot of that humor in it. It’s partly tongue-in-cheek and partly not. From what I hear from young people, it’s not cool to use “gay” that way in some places and in other places it’s the norm. One thing I like about the title of the movie is that maybe now when someone says the word “gay” it might have a different meaning. The movie is going to help change the idea of what it means to sound gay and to use that as a slur.

What about a more derogatory term like “faggot?” I’ve heard gay men use this word between each other. Is it a word that offends you as a gay man?

I think we should appropriate the word faggot. I’m comfortable with gay people calling each other faggot and queer. I think “queer” used to be a very hurtful insult, but now it has value. I know that was a struggle when I was growing up in the 80s. “Queer” is what gay boys were called in the schoolyard. I think we should do the same thing with the word faggot. I use faggot in the movie many times because I think it’s important to take that word back.

Since sounding “less gay” was so important to you at the beginning of this film, did you ever think that maybe you could just fake it? I mean, instead of trying to change something inherent about you, why not go the same route as Nathan Lane did in “The Birdcage” or Titus Burgess does in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and just act straight?

(Laughs) Well, apparently not because I didn’t pull it off! (Laughs) I do think that’s a real question for people in the media and in theater. They need to appear straight in order to get work. I love Rachel Maddow and she sounds very masculine, but I don’t think you’d ever have a very effeminate male newscaster.

Liv Corfixen & Nicolas Winding Refn – My Life Directed…

March 2, 2015 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the documentary film “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn,” Refn’s wife and first-time director Liv Corfixen points her camera at her husband during the making of his 2013 crime drama “Only God Forgives.” Corfixen hoped to capture Refn’s filmmaking process and what it’s like for director like him to create a film that would be considered by many as one of the most polarizing of his career.

During an interview with Refn and Corfixen, we talked about what it was like opening up their lives for a documentary like this, what kind of film Refn thinks “Only God Forgives” ended up becoming, and whether or not Refn would ever consider “selling out” in this industry. I first started the interview by asking Corfixen whether or not she ever contemplated taking the advice filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky offered her in the film after reading her tarot cards. He told her she should divorce Refn if she wanted to find happiness in her own life.

“My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” was recently released on VOD and on iTunes and theatrically in Los Angeles and New York City.

Liv, did you ever file divorce papers like Jodorowsky advised you to?

Liv Corfixen: (Laughs) No, I didn’t. We went to couples therapy instead. We’re still together so it must be working.

Nicolas Winding Refn: So far.

Was it challenging for both of you to open up so candidly about your life in a project like this or did you find it therapeutic in a way?

LC: I think Nicholas found it therapeutic. I did it because I thought it would be more interesting to make a film that showed the downside of being an artist and all the anxieties that you have. I didn’t want to just glorify what filmmaking is. I wanted to show the ups and downs of it.

Nicolas, you were already putting yourself under so much pressure during the making of “Only God Forgives.” Did you ever think having another film happening at the same time would only make things more difficult for the production?

NWR: I had no say. One day Liv came to me and said she wanted to make this film. We were already living in Bangkok. I said, “OK.” Because of her friendship with Ryan [Gosling] and everyone else on the set, she was able to do it. So she started doing her own thing. We were both making our own different movies at the same time.

Looking back on “Only God Forgives” today, do you consider the film successful?

NWR: I think the movie was personally very successful. I think financially it was also successful. I just think it was a film that divided a lot of people. At the end it became the ultimate counterculture film. What more could you ask for in cinema?

When “Only God Forgives” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, reports came out that it was booed by audiences. How did you react to that?

NWR: Well, at Cannes, basically they applaud and boo you at the same time. There’s no either or. What was interesting was that in the morning screening, which was just for critics, there were either very aggressive boos or applause. It created some hostility because people were either loving it or hating it. So, when we got to the night secreting, I was so nervous about what was going to happen. I had heard stories of people reacting harshly at the night screening. But I was so relieved that I got a standing ovation at night. So I knew that whatever I had done was right.

Do you believe because a film is polarizing makes it more special?

NWR: I don’t know if you remember but “Drive” was universally hated by a lot of people. It didn’t get very good reviews when it came out and it didn’t make a lot of money. But it hit a nerve. A lot of people didn’t like the movie. The distributors didn’t like the movie. It’s always been like that for me. That polarization has always been there. I love it because that creates thought and reaction and emotion. Emotion brings the world into a better place.

Liv, is there anything you learned about Nicolas that you didn’t know before making this documentary?

LC: Well, we’ve been married for 19 years so it wasn’t like I learned something new about him. (Laughs) Every time he makes a movie it’s like this. I just felt like I wanted to show him in this process. I enjoyed it. It was a great experience for me. I really want to make another film, but I haven’t decided what it should be about.

Nicolas, what is your definition of selling out in this industry? For example, if you were offered to direct, say, the next “Transformers” sequel, is that something you would think about doing?

NWR: Well, I have a huge admiration for Michael Bay, but I don’t know if I would be the right guy for something like that. (Laughs) I’ve had some great opportunities, but at the end I’ve turned them down because I thought that was the right thing to do. I don’t believe in selling out. And actually, you don’t really sell out, you get points. You just have to ask yourself, “How many points in life am I willing to compromise?” I just like my freedom too much. It’s more pleasurable going to work and making the movie I want to make without any hesitation at all. That’s a very pleasurable experience for me, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right experience. I’m not the greatest filmmaker in the world, but for the kinds of films I make I’m the best at.

Is it a misconception that artists like yourself don’t care about the commercial viability of their films?

NWR: I am very conscious of the commercial situation of my movies. Fortunately, I make very inexpensive movies. “Only God Forgives” made so much money that when it came time to make my next movie, which I’m in L.A. right now to do, I was given a blank check without even having a cast. They felt there was money to be made with me and they want to support that.

Charlie Paul – For No Good Reason (DVD)

September 5, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

After 10 years of shooting footage followed by five years in the editing room, filmmaker Charlie Paul had completed his documentary. For him, it was a long, unique experience making “For No Good Reason,” an in-depth look at acclaimed British artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his longtime partnership with American Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. During that time, Paul says, his friendship with Steadman grew into a working relationship.

“After a while, I got to a stage where I had total access to Ralph,” Paul told me during an interview at the SXSW Film Festival where the film made its debut in March. “There were no barriers or guards with him. The end result is that everything in the film is completely honest. It’s as if you were in Ralph’s studio without him noticing you there.”

In “For No Good Reason,” Paul interviews Steadman (and others like actor Johnny Depp and director Terry Gilliam) to create a sense of how important his work is not only as an extension of the controversial words Thompson wrote in books such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” but to illustrators worldwide. He also uses Steadman’s own incredible drawings to show the influence he has made on others both culturally and historically.

 “For No Good Reason” was recently released on Blu-ray and DVD on Sept. 2.

Were you surprised no one else had made a film about Ralph before you started shooting this film 15 years ago?

Well, naturally, Ralph wouldn’t let anyone make a film about him. The same thing could be said about Hunter [S. Thompson]. These guys are incredibly personal. Ralph had never seen a need to make a movie. It was only our relationship and the fact that I was a filmmaker that I was able to convince him that this was something we needed to do.

Was it easy to convince him?

Well, if you tell Ralph to go north, Ralph will go south. The idea of actually going in and structuring Ralph to make a film was virtually impossible. I think I would’ve ended up making the opposite film I wanted. So, for me, what I had to do was just follow Ralph. So, I was just there with him all the time. Every week I would go and film a session with him. Each session was guided by him. I shot anything he was doing that day. If I arrived and he was drawing a picture of a bird, that would be what we shot that day.

It must have been incredible just to be in his studio and watch him work. Is his workspace as chaotic as I’m imagining?

You know, I’ll tell you, I was rummaging one day around his studio and found some photos he had taken that he had forgotten about. They were photos he took in New York in 1974. These things were under a pile of rubbish. He would’ve never seen them. So, I took them and scanned them and show them to Ralph and ask, “Hey, Ralph, what do you think of these?” Ralph loved them so much he got them into an exhibition and then decided to make a book out of them. It was good for Ralph and for me to be rummaging around in his space. It was really a marvelous uncovering for him.

Is Ralph, even today, still creating work on a consistent basis?

Oh, yes! Ralph paints every day. Almost every day we would film what he was painting. The work that made it to the film had a purpose. Ralph is constantly creating new work. He still potters down to his studio and gets a brush and makes a splat and, before you know it, he’s created a genius piece of art.

Although Ralph stopped drawing political cartoons a few years ago, he’s now doing it again. Why did he stop in the first place?

It’s because he realized that most of the politicians found [his illustrations] flattering. For all his efforts to show the ugly side of the person, they would actually say, “This is great! Can I have it?” He realized he was helping these people by producing this work. But he’s back in it now. He’s working for the New Yorker. He does politicians all the time, but he’s always very skeptical about beautifying these people or allowing them to think they’ve been immortalized by him. But he’s not out to get people like he was before.

During all the time you spend with Ralph, did he ever tell you anything you remember that sort of encompasses who he was as a person?

He would say something like, “I became an artist to try and change the world, and I did change the world because it’s a worse place now than when I started.” That’s how he feels about life. For all his efforts, he feels like he has done nothing to change the world. Before, the world was moving on in a way he was protesting against. It’s like, however hard you try, the world will carry on without you.

Do you agree with his take on life?

Oh, no. I disagree with him entirely. I always tell him, “Ralph, I was influenced by your work and I am trying to change the world as a mirror to what you do. You’ve influenced so many people around the world.” Bu he doesn’t see that. As far as he’s concerned, he’s only wasted his time. But, again, Ralph really is the reason I do my work. Therefore, he has had an influence. I can tell him a thousand times and he would deny it all the way to his grave.

Alison Haislip – Video Games: The Movie

July 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

If a new video game hits the market and there’s a need for an expert opinion on the product, don’t overlook actress and former TV correspondent Alison Haislip to contribute to the discussion. In fact, she just might take it personally if you pass her by.

“I actually get kind of sad if people don’t come to me,” said Haislip, 33, the ex-host of TV’s “Attack the Show!,” which once aired on the now practically vanished G4 Network. “I grew up playing video games. I can’t remember how many times my parents tried to convince me to stop playing or focus on other things. Now that I’ve basically made a career playing video games for so long, it’s nice to know my entire childhood wasn’t wasted.”

Haislip gets the opportunity to wax philosophical about all things video games and delve into the history of the medium in the new documentary “Video Games: The Movie,” which recently hit VOD and select theaters across the country.

During our interview, Haislip and I talked about her earliest memories as a kid playing video games, whether or not she thinks it’s OK for an adult to spend 10 hours a day in front of a screen and how the term “nerd” has changed in the last few decades. I opened the interview by bringing up a video Haislip recently Tweeted – a film her and her cousin made as kids in 1993 featuring the video game “Street Fighter” with narration by a pre-teen Haislip herself.

First of all, congratulations on your new film that you just released, “Street Fighter.” It was a million times better than the Jean Claude Van Damme version.

(Laughs) Right! (Laughs) I couldn’t believe my cousin found that. He’s been digitizing all of our home videos. He asked me if I wanted to post it. I watched it and was like, “Is that me talking?” I didn’t even recognize my own voice. I’m pretty sure we [made the movie] the day after Christmas one year, maybe 1993.

So, did you always pick Chun Li like most girls?

(Reluctantly) Yeah. (Laughs) She was the one I related to the most. I was either her or Blanka because he was a really good button masher.

Besides entertaining me with your “Street Fighter” movie, I also wanted to thank you for teaching me something new this week. I heard on the Pointless Podcast that you recently found out that a Narwahl is a real animal. I had never heard of such a thing, so I looked it up. I was shocked.

Isn’t that insane?! We used to talk about Narwahls on “Attack of the Show!” and I really thought they were just mythical creatures. Then one day I was hanging out with [actresses] Clare Grant and Rileah Vanderbilt when we were shooting [the short film] “Sabre III: [Revenge of the Threesome].” Rileah started singing this Narwahl song and then she pulls up a photograph online and I was like, “What is that? Narwahls aren’t real!” Then I went down this black hole of Wikipedia articles about Narwahls. I didn’t understand. Most creatures in this world make sense to me. Narwahls look like they were made up. I don’t understand what they use those horns for! I don’t get it. I wouldn’t imagine they have enough thrust power to spear something with that thing.

What is your earliest video game memory? Did it all start when you woke up one Christmas morning and there was an NES wrapped up and sitting under the tree?

It was much earlier than the NES. My parents had an Atari before I was even born. As soon as I was old enough to know how to move a joystick and push some buttons, I was playing games in our basement. I was around four or five. I definitely remember my favorite games like “Cookie Monster.” Well, I really don’t know if it was called “Cookie Monster,” but that’s what I called it. There was also a Strawberry Shortcake game and “Empire Strikes Back” and “Combat,” which I called “Tanks.” Those were my favorite games to play growing up.

When did the NES come into your life?

I got a Nintendo when I was probably around eight for Christmas. I clearly remember it was Christmas and opening up a present and seeing that it was a Nintendo and losing my mind. One of the games that came with the Nintendo at that time was “Duck Tales.”

Really? Mine came with “Super Mario Bros.” but it wasn’t even the cartridge that included “Duck Hunt.”

That sucks! Mine came with that Olympics game where you had to run on the Power Pad (“World Class Track Meet”).

Would you cheat and use your hands to run faster?

Oh, I would put a chair off to the side and sit on the chair so I could move my feet really fast. Yes, I cheated!

Well, you weren’t the only one, so that’s cool. Then the Game Genie came out and everyone cheated anyway.

Oh, I know! But let me tell you, the hardest freaking game on Nintendo, without a doubt, was “Adventure Island.” I don’t think I’ve ever gotten past the second level of that game. I have no idea how the game ends or how many levels there are. It always made me so angry because there were never any cheat codes for it with Game Genie.

Would you play video games for hours on end as a kid?

Yeah, until our parents kicked us outside, but for the most part we would live in our basement. I always thought the coolest thing was when I got to go to [my childhood friend] Nicole Reed’s house because her brothers had a Sega Genesis. I was like, “Oh, this is new!” She was the only person in my entire middle school that had a Sega Genesis.

It’s one thing for a kid to spend 8-10 hours playing a video game, but do you think it’s healthy for an adult to come home after work and stay up till 3 am playing “World of Warcraft?”

I think anything in moderation is fine as long as those eight hours aren’t taking away from being healthy or being social. Play away! Video games are an amazing way to remove yourself a little from the stresses of reality. I went on a USO Tour back in December and I can’t tell you the amount of gamers we have in our military. They spend their whole day going through training and doing the stuff they do and then when they have free time they go back to their bunks and play “Call of Duty.” (Laughs) I’m like, “But that’s your life!” To them, they’re getting to do the stuff they’re training for every day through video games. If it was me, I would go home and play “Mario Cart” or something so far off from what I’m doing in real life. These guys actually use it as a release.

I know a few women who wished their husband or boyfriend played a lot less. Have you ever dated someone that played video games too much?

No, anyone I’ve dated who also played video games, I would just make sure they were playing games I could play with them. I’ve dated guys who don’t understand video games. I’ll sit there and play and they’ll watch me and be like, “I don’t get it.”

How do you think the term “nerd” changed in the last 20 years?

You know, I think a “nerd” back in the day was just someone who was really into tech and that kind of stuff, not so much gaming. Tech has grown so much in the last 20 years and has become so much more easily accessible. Back then, it was more of a fringe interest. Now that technology is engrained into so many peoples’ lives, so many more people play video games because of that. I think that’s why the term “nerd,” when it comes to gaming, has sort of subsided.

Are you nostalgic about video games or are you more about keeping up with trends? Do you always want to try out the latest thing to hit the market or do you find yourself revisiting old-school stuff?

I go old school a lot. I’m not one of those people who pre-ordered an X-Box One. For me, I want the contents to come out. I don’t need to be the first kid on the block to have the new, shiny toy. I want it when I have enough actual games to play. Also, I feel like mobile gaming has become such a great source these days. As many times as I’ll go back and play “Left for Dead,” I’ll also sit down and find some sweet indie game to play on my iPad. There are some incredible games I can play for 80 hours or for three hours.

Is there anything you own in your personal collection of video game memorabilia that you’re attached to the most? Maybe something that has sentimental value?

Well, I have all of my Nintendo Power [magazines] – about three years worth – that I keep displayed in a bookshelf so you can see all their bindings. That’s probably one of my favorites. Then, my cousin, who is probably one of the biggest reasons I got into gaming in the first place (this is the same cousin who I made the “Street Fighter” movie with), has a home theater in his house that he built specifically to have enough hook-ups for every gaming system our family has. So, he has all of my old systems. They’re all hooked up, so whenever we go to his house we can just play whatever we want.

You mentioned mobile gaming, so are you the type of gamer that will download anything just to try it once? If so, have you played Kim Kardashian’s new mobile game where she challenges you to live the life of a celebrity?

When it comes to mobile games, especially the indie ones, for me it’s based on recommendations. I don’t go hunting for the highest-rated games. The other day I Tweeted about finishing “Device 6,” which is an incredible game. It’s so innovative. Someone randomly Tweeted me back and asked if I had played “A Dark Room.” So, I looked it up and was like, “Oh, I can give this a shot.” It was a completely different type of game and it was awesome. I just finished shooting a film and it was the game I would play when I had downtime in my room. So, word of mouth is what gets me to the best games out there.

So, I guess it’s safe to say you’re not going virtual shopping with Kim Kardashian anytime soon.

(Laughs) I really just try to avoid anything that involves the name Kardashian, so I doubt I would play one of her games.

Korengal

July 17, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: LaMona Caldwell, Miguel Cortez, Stephen Gillespie
Directed by: Sebastian Junger (“Restrepo”)

In a follow up to his emotionally-raw and visceral 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo,” filmmaker Sebastian Junger brings viewers back to the frontlines of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley in “Korengal,” an equally intense sequel created from leftover footage Junger (and late “Restrepo” co-director Tim Hetherington who died during the Libyan civil war in 2011) captured during their time spent with deployed American servicemen in 2007 and 2008.

What was left on the editing room floor when Junger and Hetherington pieced together “Restrepo” is definitely not extraneous footage that could be forgotten. In “Korengal,” Junger, an American journalist and author, continues his powerful and illuminating one-on-one interviews with soldiers who share their experiences in combat and their personal thoughts about everything including family, friendship and faith. Junger doesn’t toss up too many softball questions, so what soldiers are presented with is an opportunity to speak candidly about the things they have seen on the battlefield and the responsibility they feel they have to their fellow brothers.

It’s obvious each of these soldiers would die to save the life of the man next to him, but to hear it come from the men themselves and hear the authenticity behind their voices is affecting. Also noteworthy are the moments of reflection when some of the men think about what they are doing in such a hellish environment. During one particularly heart-wrenching interview, a soldier questions whether or not killing another human being, even during wartime, is a forgivable act. The excuse that “it’s something [he] had to do,” isn’t sitting well with his conscious anymore. For someone who believes in God, it’s a logical debate that really illustrates how torn some of the men are when put into a life or death situation.

While “Korengal” isn’t as moving as its predecessor (“Restrepo” focused a lot more on a single soldier who was killed in Afghanistan, Juan Restrepo), the realistic firefights, scenes where soldiers are overcome by pure boredom and the insightful thoughts of these men, some who may have over-romanticized the military when they first joined up, it is still a compelling package Junger has put together with thought and focus. It’s probably true that moviegoers who have never served in the military still won’t really understand the sacrifice these men have made nor will they ever feel the same type of loss as someone who witnesses a friend die in battle, but Junger’s attempt to tap into the hearts of these heroes is commendable.

Leslie Zemeckis – Bound by Flesh

July 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the second documentary of her career, “Bound by Flesh,” filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis (“Behind the Burly Q”), wife of Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who made a living during the early 19th century as performers in the sideshow and vaudeville circuit.

During an interview last week, Zemeckis and I talked about what made her so interested in the Hilton sisters’ story and why she feels sideshows are still around today with the popularity of reality TV.

I know the twins came up in conversation during your last documentary “Behind the Burly Q,” but is that the first time you had ever heard about them?

Yeah, in “Burly Q” a couple of people talked about these Siamese twins who had done burlesque for a while. Then I read Dean Jensen’s wonderful biography on the twins [“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”] and they just stayed with me for a year. I thought, “Is this going to be my next documentary?” I wondered if anybody would really care. But, yeah, [the Hilton sisters] are really important. Nobody had ever explored there life beyond Dean. I really wanted to bring their story to life.

Specifically, what attracted you to their story?

What I saw was a very deep love story between two sisters. They were bound to each other not just by flesh, but by this inner bond. They wanted to go through life together. At one point, they had a choice whether or not they wanted to be separated, but they didn’t want that. This is who they were. That’s all they knew. It’s just a different type of bond than we can possibly know.

As a documentary filmmaker doing research on these women, where did you start from? Where do you find some of the footage and photos you include in the film?

(Laughs) Well, I do about 95 percent of the research myself, so I can keep all the names and dates and events in my head. I went to a news reel house in New York and they did have something on the twins. I said, “There has to be more!” I asked if I could go through their paperwork and I ended up finding footage of them that hadn’t been seen since the 1930s and might’ve never been discovered. It wasn’t archived in any way, shape or form. I’m still researching even though the film is out. The story never ends for me.

If the sisters were alive and you had the opportunity to ask them something, what would that be?

I would’ve been interested in knowing how they viewed their own story. I really think they saw themselves as very normal people. They didn’t understand why they didn’t have love or why it couldn’t work out.

What do you hope audiences learn about the Hilton twins when they see this doc?

I want people to really see them as human, which they hadn’t been thought of before. People would just think, “Oh, there are the Siamese twins or freaks.” Their lives were very much a headline. As tough as things were for them, I think there is something very optimistic about their story. They never gave up. They moved forward. They were very good people and have a positive outlook on life. Here were two girls who had a heavier cross to bear than anybody and look at what they radiate – this joy and happiness.

You’re married to a great storyteller. When you’re working on a film like this, do you like to pick Robert’s brain about what you’re working on, or do you like to go at it alone with your projects?

He always chimes in on the final edit. It’s always great to have fresh eyes to make sure all the dots are connecting. He’s very helpful during the final part of the filmmaking process to make sure everything is clear.

Of course, in the entertainment world today there are no more sideshows or “freakshows,” but we do have reality TV shows like where audiences can gawk at a number of different groups of people and communities. Do you feel reality shows have become the modern day sideshow?

Absolutely. We’ve become so hypocritical as a society. We say, “Oh, we would never go to a sideshow and see people with disabilities” or whatever you want to call it, but we have no problem sitting on the couch in the dark watching “freaks” or strange lives. It’s exactly the same thing. I’m very interested in early American entertainment. It changes, but it stays the same. We still have burlesque, vaudeville, and sideshows, but they’re just in a different form.

Fed Up

May 30, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Katie Couric, Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton
Directed by: Stephanie Soechtig (“Tapped”)
Written by: Mark Monroe (“The Cove”) and Stephanie Soechtig (“Tapped”)

The healthy eating food documentary isn’t something new in the film industry. Just scan through your Netflix menu and movie titles like “Vegucated” and “Farmageddon” are jockeying for a place in your queue to tell you basically the same story. Americans are getting fatter because of the food choices they are making.

The same tune is played in “Fed Up,” a statistic-heavy documentary that will probably have a little more traction in theaters because of executive producer and narrator Katie Couric’s influence, but also because of it’s slightly tougher stance against things the average person might think would help solve the jaw-dropping problems that lead to childhood obesity.

In “Fed Up,” director Stephanie Soechtig (“Tapped”) asks a lot of questions and delivers few answers, but only because nothing is really changing in this country to curtail the emerging epidemic. In fact, Soechtig and Couric argue that we’re actually making things worse by fighting obesity with an “eat less, exercise more” attitude.

Through conventional talking-head interviews with doctors, parents and overweight children, Soechtig covers some of the same ground other food docs have done in the past. It’s when “Fed Up” gets bold enough to go after people like First Lady Michelle Obama for not doing enough in her “Let’s Move” campaign when things start getting very interesting.

Still, until a documentary like this can actual get their villain to speak on camera for an in-depth talk about these topics, the argument will always be one sided and in favor of fresh green beans over the processed jelly kind. Pointing a finger at sugar and blaming a child’s weight gain on how much they consume it is easy enough, but the well-produced rhetoric only goes so far. Not everyone writes letters to their congressman as this film asks us to do during the credits. It’s unfortunate, but after you see the film, stopping at a drive thru is still a lot less time consuming than going home and cooking a healthy meal.

Yes, Coca-Cola and McDonalds are making kids fat, but we’re as close to solving the problem as we were three decades ago. If “Fed Up” teaches us anything, it’s that we’re still a few hundred thousand diabetes-stricken preschoolers away from doing anything about it.

 

Shaul Schwarz – Narco Cultura (DVD)

March 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the 2013 documentary film “Narco Cultura,” director and photojournalist Shaul Schwarz explores the drug war and the subculture that continues to flourish from the popularity of the cartels and kingpins, particularly songs known as “narcocorridos” that feature lyrics about admired Mexican drug traffickers. In “Narco Cultura,” Schwarz takes a deep look at the bands and songwriters who create this music, but also investigates how Mexican crime scene investigators and journalists function when another murder takes place in their backyard. “Narco Cultura” was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray Feb. 25.

As a first time film director coming from a photography background, was the transition natural for you? You capture a lot of great images in the film, but was it a challenge to capture the narrative, especially since the drug war story has been told numerous times before?

It’s been a long time in the making. I’ve covered this story for a bunch of magazines and publications. In “Narco Cultura,” I wanted to tell this more complex, cultural story. I agree there have been a lot of films about the drug war, but they usually bring experts and talking heads. I wanted to keep something raw with this film from my photojournalistic background. I wanted to take viewers to the frontlines and show them how this feels rather than educate them first. I got this ultimate access and got to shoot this very cinéma vérité. If I only took pictures, I don’t think I could’ve told the complexities of the stories and shown this stark kind of reality on both sides. For me it was the perfect storm. After two years of photography I was frustrated because – even though my pictures were getting published in magazines like National Geographic and Time and Newsweek – it never got to the bigger picture. It was always about the violence. I wanted to find out what this story meant to the millions people on both sides of the border. I wanted to know what it meant to the hearts and minds of these people. I thought filmmaking was the perfect tool for that.

How were you able to get so many of your subjects to open up to you so much and tell you things on record that are so uninhibited?

It was about spending endless time in their nature and complex worlds. For every one thing that worked, there were 10 things that didn’t. We kept coming back and acting like a fly on the wall. We tried to stay very small. We asked hard questions, but we never asked questions trying to pin murders on people. We weren’t after that. I’d get killed if I did that. That wasn’t what I was looking for. I was looking for feeling. When people start trusting you and see that you’re putting your neck on the line and really care, I think you start gathering the fruit of [your labor]. We really felt like part of the story. I spent almost five years covering this story.

One of the most powerful scenes in the film – and I don’t think you actually capture it yourself, but correct me if I’m wrong – is of a mother who unapologetically screams out in front of the media when she finds out her son has been murdered. Is that something you found online? How did you come across that video?

That’s a great question. No one has ever asked me about that before. I worked with a ton of local journalists. I came back one day and one of the local photojournalists grabbed me and said, “I have to show you something I filmed two days ago.” I had been there for three years by that time and had felt so frustrated. You really feel like you want to scream. Sometimes nobody will say what everybody knows and it makes you want to scream. When [the local photojournalist] pushed play on that clip, I dropped in the middle of it and screamed everything my heart had been crying about. I know this mother lost her son in this horrific way, but I thought, “Finally, somebody screams!” The photojournalist said, “I knew you would want this. Here, it’s yours.” We always joke around that I shot the whole movie, but the one scene, which turns out to be the strongest of the film, is the one I didn’t shoot.

What does the U.S. lose in terms of news coverage when stories cross the border from Mexico? I know Mexican newspapers will print more brutal images than publications in the U.S., but what else are we not getting? What stories are not translating over well?

I think in general it’s an ongoing problem that people toss away. I mean, even the banner we’ve given this war is not true: The Mexican Drug War. Why is it not the Mexican/American Drug War? Billions of dollars come from the U.S. Weapons come from the U.S. We’re all involved in this but we don’t get the coverage. Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of great colleagues and I don’t want to sound like this pretentious person that invented something new, but people are tired of it. Do we need to deny this and stick our heads in the sand? If you do, don’t blame the kids for seeing the [drug cartels] are like Robin Hood. It’s not a left or right issue. It goes across the board. That bothers me. I don’t think we can afford that.

Where do you think the head of the snake begins in this drug war? I mean, I know you have the drugs cartels themselves, but everything is so connected, it’s hard to find where things start and end.

It’s a cycle! Maybe it’s not the cartels. The cartels are the providers. I don’t agree with the Mexican president on much, but I will quote him and say, “It’s not easy being the neighbor to the biggest drug addict in the world.” That’s why I say that we are in it together. The root of the problem is in the demand, but you can’t really change that overnight. If you pretend you can do that, then you’ll certainly fail.

So, in your opinion, would legalizing drugs be an option to break down demand?

I definitely think it’s something we should talk about more. I don’t think it’s the sole solution, but I think it’s a very important part of it. I think we have to be careful what we do in the name of the drug war, which harms other things. I mean, we spend billions of dollars on the border. Does that influence the price of drugs? You don’t have to be a great economist to figure out that if you make a product much harder to get, it will be more expensive. So, the Border Patrol is going to get a bigger budget and the Mexican Federales and military are going to get more aid. It’s a vicious cycle. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating that we just sit back and give up, but I want to do something than just pretend we’re doing something now that is making a difference. These kids are going to keep singing [the drug cartel’s] songs if we keep pretending.

What was going on in your mind the first time you heard a narcocorrido and realized what these Mexican citizens were actually singing about?

The first time I heard one was back in 2010. I woke up in Tijuana and covered two murder scenes. That afternoon I heard the crowd singing a song about someone getting their head cut off. I was angry. I was pissed. I thought it was so ignorant. I knew about [narcocorridos] in theory, but I had never heard one. It’s one thing to know something, but it’s another thing to experience it. I was very pissed, but as I started spending time with the band, I also understood that 99 percent of these Mexican kids were in search of identity. They don’t connect to rap or hip-hop music. They’re searching for their roots. The reality is, those roots aren’t Pancho Villa anymore. Those roots are Chapo Guzman. So, I understood they were a product of it. But, yeah, the first time I heard a narcocorrido, it really rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to understand why they felt that way and act that way. I think I do understand more. I wish we could change that.

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