Earth Days – movies to see

EarthDays Just got a note from Zeitgeist Films about Earth Days by Robert Stone. I’ve always been curious about the Earth Day movement – what good it does, how the environmental movement got started in this country and so forth. And viola! – a documentary to answer my curiousity.
It opens in Baltimore on October 2nd, and in DC at E Street September 18th.



FILM REVIEW: Romantico

Romantico DVD FILM: Romantico
FILMMAKER: Mark Becker

This melodramatic, sincere portrait begins in San Francisco. The protagonist of our film is a man squashed by fate. After a tragic and painful childhood, illegal Mexican immigrant Carmelo comes to San Francisco where he makes his living going back and forth to bars playing Mexican folk songs for tips. He does pretty well, sleeps on a mattress in a group house with other immigrants, and sends money back to his family. To say he is happy…eh, but he is desperately trying to give his daughters back home a life he never had.

After three years, he just can’t take the separation anymore, and flies home to Mexico, leaving his best friend, the alcoholic Arturo, behind. His family is happy to have him there, but in gaining their father, they lose their income. He winds up making a few dollars a night playing in cheap bars where prostitutes get their johns to “buy songs” from him. Or he peddles homemade ice cream on the street giving away cones because he can’t stand to say no to the beggar children that remind him of himself.

Carmelo, his face permanently drawn a tragicomic masterpiece, must be one of the most photogenic men ever. He is appealing and moving and sad and happy. As he says, “Unfortunately, God made me, and I make do.” The story goes almost nowhere. A fact illustrated by the occasional completely unmotivated slo mo that permeates the film. Although it begins in California and ends in Mexico, little appreciable changes about his status in life. But like the sad songs he sings about romance lost, he endures and persists. In going no where, the film rings true. It’s not a travelogue, it’s a portrait of a man’s life doing the best he can with what life has given him.

This is a sad melodramatic musical. But it is also a buddy film. Arturo doesn’t like being left alone in San Francisco, so he also returns to their shared hometown. And Carmelo benefits from his friend’s return. He’s enthused and inspired, the sound of his music improves when he plays with his longtime collaborator.

Like so many fathers, Carmelo sees his contribution in monetary value rather than personal. He sometimes doesn’t see how much his daughters need his guidance as much as a better life. Romantico is a film about a man’s life – with awkward family moments, and fathers who never really do understand their daughters, and good men in all shapes and sizes. Even if they aren’t perfect heros.

4 out of 5 cheers

Next week’s film to review

Next Week Katy & Becky will review Romantico by Filmmaker Mark Becker.

Mark Becker was director and editor of Pressure Cooker. (films I want to see). And the editor of the great Lost Boys of Sudan.

The film is about a Mexican troubadour who spends years in the U.S. playing the hipster circuit so he can send money back to his family. He returns to Mexico to see his daughter get married and tries once more to make a life there, only to realize that even after the years of being gone, he still can’t make ends meet.

Drink of the Week: Pour it All Over Me!

Drink of the Week: Blueberry Mojitos
Reviewer: Becky B

It was the perfect drink for a blistering DC summer afternoon. It one of the drinks that are soooooo tasty you can’t help but have seconds!

This recipe was prepared by a great entertainer in my Condo Building – Grace. I have to give her major props for this delicious beverage.

5 out a 5 Cheers


Weekly Review : Journey to the Midwest

Documentary: Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern (1995)
Reviewer: Becky B


This week I picked another snooze-fest for doc and a drink. I can only promise to improve the quality next time…..

This film is a journey to the Midwest – more specifically a journey to a large farm in the Midwest. A farm with a full and interesting history seeded in one family since the 1800s. Today – the farm is on the brink of foreclosure. The Midwest was beautiful – the snow – the crops – the cows. I ate up the cinematography even though it was simple. A simplicity that was mirrored in the main character’s interviews and lifestyle. My secret enjoyment was the use of “old black and white” photos.

The story is narrated by the “daughter”. I found her to be the most annoying part of the film. I was slightly bothered by the extreme sentiment through out the film but severely irritated by her voice! More Character — Less Narrator. Doc and a Drink went form one extreme last week – no narrator – to this week – a bossy overzealous narrator. ISO a healthy median.

On the other hand – My favorite part of the film was the “Grey Garden-esque” moments captured when the family relaxed and interacted among themselves. It seemed honestly full of drama. After all – the family did have to sell everything not nailed down on the farm in order to keep the farm in the family.

Solid but not Exceptional.

3 out of 5 Cheers

“Afghan Star” Review

Title: Afghan Star
Director: Havana Marking
Film reviewed by: Katy Jones

I loved this film. It took me a little while to get into it. It’s a little rough – it’s a film about Afghanistan. It’s a world I’ve never been to, and like any culture shock, it takes a little bit of time to get a sense of where you are and what you are trying to navigate.

Television has come back to Afghanistan after being outlawed during the years of Taliban rule. One of the most popular programs on the television is Tolo TV’s Afghan Star. The set up is the same as American Idol. Thousands audition across the country wearing contestant numbers and singing to a panel of judges who alternatively ridicule and praise until they whittle out a small group of finalists. These finalists move on to the main broadcast and sing in a weekly program. After they perform, the audience sends votes for their favorite via text messages. The next week the person with the fewest votes is removed from the program. And this poor unlucky soul, after being told that their dreams are crushed, gets to sing one final song to the audience and exit on a “high note” so to speak.

The four finalists that we follow are from different backgrounds and different regions in Afghanistan. Rafi, an adorable 19 year old with Jonas brother appeal is from nearby Mazer e Sharif, a community dominated by the Tajiks of Iranian descent. Hameed is a twenty-five year old classically trained musician from the Hazara minority, a people believed to be related to the Mongolians.

Rafi is clearly the heartthrob while Hameed is clearly the better musician. Both become symbols for their people to pin their hopes. And they are friends (at least on screen). The sight of these two singing together, joyfully embracing after they are passed to the next round resonates strongly with a people that are tired of fighting and want to see Afghanistan as a unified country.

There are two (!) female contestants. There is the modest and Madonna-esque (Rembrant style Madonna) Lema who is praised for maintaining her feminine modesty. She quietly, stoically can’t help herself from singing and is matter of fact of the danger she knows she is facing in being a woman on the screen. She doesn’t need to be a star, but she does need to sing.

And then there’s Setara. Ah, Setara, an irrepressible Madonna-esque (pop star style Madonna) diva who can’t help but dance when she’s singing. Eventually, the audience turns against her because she bounced from side to side in an immodest fashion while singing. She doesn’t cry at the announcement that she is kicked off, but during her final song – oh, dear. Her face sets, her thoughts broadcast, “Okay, you didn’t like that – see how you like this!” And she belts out a song as she sashays around the whole stage, letting her head-scarf slip. Oh, Setara. Noooooooo!!!! She leaves the program laughing, and dodging death threats.

But my favorite character is Daoud Sediqi, the producer/host who works behind the scenes. “Why do I care who wins personally? These people are characters for me to make a better world with.” For him, having these ethnic groups share the same stage and vote for the same stars is a unifying force for the Afghan people. “Why talk about the Taliban?” he asks, “They are not important.” They are not a part of this television world he is creating. In his world, ethnic diversity shares one stage and sings together and supports each other. Women are seen, television is broadcast, and music is heard. Interestingly, this film was shot in 2006, and Mr. Sediqi today is no longer a part of Afghan Star. Earlier this year, he was sent to watch this documentary in the U.S., and he never returned to Afghanistan.

Why do I like this show? Amazing characters? Yes. The producer manipulating the entire country. Yes. But also there’s this – my belief in democracy has been shaken in recent years, petty fighting, caring more about the pretense of caring than actually caring, the exhaustion of watching Sarah Palin continue to get press – but you know, you’re giving it back to me, Afghan Star. Suddenly democracy does seem like a process that can bring people together as much as tear them apart. Suddenly, in an entertainment-driven TV show, I am reminded why freedom of the press is important. Thumbs up.

4 out of 5 cheers


Shiner Bock

Drink Review: Shiner Bock
Reviewer: Katy Jones


To accompany this week’s viewing of a uniquely American story “Gates of Heaven” it seemed important to select a uniquely American beer. Brewed in Shiner, Texas, this is a wholesome American as apple pie beer. Shiner Bock is a wonderful, well-balanced, sophisticated beer that makes you look intelligent when you bring it to parties, but not overly pretentious. It’s Texas roots give a sense of hometown. I find it best with lighter foods, chicken, even salad or fruit. It doesn’t have quite the heartiness for a burger pairing. (Which is not to say I haven’t done it). I recently spent about six months going back and forth to Texas and one of my favorite parts about the trip was finding this beer on draft everywhere. In Texas, it has a bit of stigma depending on where you are – in that way that sometimes people hate the sports team from the next town over – but I personally have never met a Shiner I didn’t like.

5 of 5 cheers

FILM REVIEW: The Gates of Heaven

Gates of Heaven DVD
Gates of Heaven DVD

Film: The Gates of Heaven
Filmmaker: Errol Morris
Year: 1978
Doc and a Drink review by:
Katy Jones

I am a bit of an Errol Morris fan. And I’d love to love this film. Unfortunately, not so much. In the world of documentary film directors, Errol Morris, is, you know, kind of a big deal. His interview style – shallow depth of field, stream of consciousness, direct eyeline with the camera is a style other filmmakers emulate and study. (why am I telling you about it, when you can watch an interview about it here.) Many a bad interview I have seen and thought “Where is Errol Morris when you need him?”

“Gates of Heaven” is a story about two pet cemeteries. One is a failure. One is a success. Morris interviews the kooky and occasionally delusional nutjobs that have chosen this profession as well as those poor mourning souls who chose to shell out cash to get their dead pets a permanent view. The film is really entirely interviews. No narration, no soundtrack, no particular story arc. It’s a series of interview selects juxtaposed against one another. On one side – the heart-warming failure who wanted so badly to honor dead collies that he failed to run a successful business – on the other a cold-hearted businessman who “reprocesses” dead animals into “usable products.”

In later films, this juxtaposing of people telling the same story from personally distinct viewpoints is a sophisticated story telling device creating narrative tension. (You should watch The Thin Blue Line, really, you should) Here it becomes kind of a narrative slop.

“Gates of Heaven” was Errol Morris’ first feature length documentary shot in the late 1970’s. And to be frank, it shows. Not just in the long sideburns, sunglasses as thick as bread, and pant-waists at the ribs. But also in the long rambly interview bites that are part of a young filmmaker just finding his style. Interview “bites” is the wrong word. It’s shot on film – a film roll is about 11 minutes long. Many of these people yammer on for about 10 minutes – or the length of time it would take for Morris to finish asking a question and the person to start talking. We’re really seeing whole independent monologues. While Errol Morris is famous for that style of interview that does encourage a subject to yammer on – this first film is overindulgent while he experiments with it. At least these interviews are well-conceived and aesthetically fascinating. There is plenty to look at in the background while you zone out in boredom from what these poor folks are actually saying.

As a student of documentary film, I think this was a valuable film to watch. This interview style was clearly conceived and executed – and the opportunity to watch Morris first work was fascinating. As a person recommending films to others, I’d have to say, skip it. If you want to see Errol Morris’ mature work and actually enjoy it, try watching The Thin Blue Line or The Fog of War. If you enjoy conceptual art – where the thinking of the method is more important than the result, watch this one.

2.5 of 5 cheers