MMC! Double Feature #42: A Latin American History Starter Pack

In anticipation of MMC!’s next (and overdue) imagined Criterion edition, this latest “Double Feature” shares a couple of recent Netflix favourites in an unusual pairing linked by their celebratory treatments of Mesoamerican, South American, Caribbean, and Latin American cultures. Órale!

John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons (Aram Rappaport, 2018)

Presenting the 2017 Tony-nominated play, Aram Rappaport’s film version of John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons follows the performer’s survey through 3,000 years of Latin American history all in an effort to help his bullied son. The process is a heartfelt reclamation of Leguizamo’s history, an unpacking of his resentments, and an effort to offer something culturally redemptive to his son and himself. Leguizamo paints with a broad brush in this one-man show, reveling in cartoonish caricatures and historical overstatements while citing his scholarly and not-so scholarly sources, but his points remain sound throughout. This is a comedy and its lessons and its outrage are revealed through that lens, remaining true even while its outspoken tour guide sometimes colours way outside the lines.

Maya and the Three (Jorge R. Gutierrez, 2021)

Building on El Tigre: The Adventures of Manny Rivera, his lucha libre-inspired series for Nickolodeon, and The Book of Life, his animated feature film drawing on Mexican Day of the Dead traditions, Jorge R. Gutierrez’s Maya and the Three is an epic adventure told through the histories and mythologies of Mesoamerica, South America, and the Caribbean. Maya, a spirited princess with the heart of a warrior, undertakes a mission to fulfill an ancient prophecy and save humanity from the wrath of vengeful gods by uniting four kingdoms and leading their unlikely champions. Gutierrez mines clichéd tropes with brilliant stylization, moving heroism, and multivalent representations that push back against stock family film conventions and fantasy movie presumptions. Sacrificing warrior mothers, multiple Akira slides, stone Olmec heads, Gatchaman helmets, a Rosie Perez voice-role, some post-colonial villains found in undead conquistadors, and the most spectacular closing battle seen in quite a while make this massive animated fantasy an easy MMC! favourite.

“The Spirit of Cuauhtémoc, Alive and Untamed!”

For no particularly good reason, Mexico and Latin America hold a place of special regard here at MMC! headquarters. We love the food, the art, the music, the history, the mythology, and the professional wrestling of Mexico and those of its sister countries and cultures. What is especially wonderful of both John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons and Maya and the Three is that neither is precious about its celebration of these histories. In these films, they are things to be embraced and enjoyed passionately, things to both applaud and laugh at, things that influence and are influenced upon as part of a global culture rather than being something hermetically sealed away for its own stultifying preservation. Above all, they are exceptionally entertaining, bringing accessibility while still remaining faithful to their vernacular origins. For those not too starched in their educational expectations, this pairing makes for a brilliant introduction to some Latin American study.

Both John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons and Maya and the Three are available on Netflix. And with titles like Uncut Gems, The Irishman, Roma, and Beasts of No Nation having already garnered Criterion canonization, who’s to say these titles might not be waiting for a wacky “C” of their own?

Video Days (Spike Jonze, 1991)

We’re nearly a quarter into 2022 and so this seems like a good opportunity to celebrate MMC!’s favourite short film discovery for the year thus far – Spike Jonze’s Video Days (1991). While I’m about the right vintage to have been awed by this seminal skate video on its initial release by Blind Skateboards, I was never a skater-kid and so I now come to Video Days fresh, and while the particulars of the tricks and locations mean relatively little to me, the energy, playfulness, and cheeky construction of Video Days is undeniable. Regularly credited as Spike Jonze’s first directorial effort (though Jonze directed the skate video Rubbish Heap in 1989), the 24-minute video features celebrated skaters Guy Mariano (a mere 14 years-old at the time), Jordan Richter, Mark Gonzales, Rudy Johnson, and Jason Lee. (Lee’s Gulf War ballad purportedly inspired Kevin Smith to cast him in Mallrats!) Jonze establishes a framing device of the five skaters riding in an Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Regency and sets their trick footage against a diverse series of tracks including “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5, “My War” by Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr.’s “Just Like Heaven,” “Cancion Mixteca” by Ry Cooder, and John Coltrane and the Ref Garland Trio’s “Traneing In” (billed during the end credits as “Some damn good jazz”). Jonze caps off the video with a shocking ending and some hilarious end-credits that had kids in the early ’90s scratching their heads over whether or not this quintet of niche-celebrities survived the production. Video Days is regularly lauded as providing the definitive skate video template and being arguably the greatest skate video of all time, though it should also be appreciated as a stunning opening salvo in the film and videography of now-heavyweight director and VICE creative director Spike Jonze.

Orders (Michel Brault, 1974)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Orders.

criterion logoStraddling fiction and documentary reconstruction, Michel Brault’s Orders is a gripping reenactment of the roundup and imprisonment of ordinary Québécois citizens during the October Crisis of 1970, when Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau imposed martial law following the political kidnappings of a British diplomat and a government minister by the secessionist Front de libération du Québec. Nearly 500 people were arrested, imprisoned, and questioned during this period before eventually being released without any charges ever being brought against them. Brault, who won the Best Director’s Award at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival for Orders, interviewed 12 detainees and recorded 50 hours of material to base this harrowing portrait of the Crisis, drawing upon his pivotal contributions to the direct cinema and cinema vérité movements during its filming. Now restored 40 years after its explosive debut at Cannes, Orders is an understated examination of the erosion of democratic values that foresees the rise of the permanent state of emergency.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • Restored high-definition digital transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • Interviews with director Michel Brault and actors Jean Lapointe, Claude Gauthier, and Louise Forestier
  • On Screen – Les Ordres, a one hour television documentary on the film for Canadian television
  • Les raquetteurs, Brault’s landmark short film that launched Quebec’s direct cinema movement
  • Le direct avant la lettre, Denys Desjardins’ 2005 documentary on the direct cinema movement
  • The October Crisis: 50 Years Onscreen, a discussion on Orders with actors Claude Gauthier and Louise Forestier, filmmaker Mathieu Denis, and documentarian Félix Rose (son of FLQ member Paul Rose)
  • Action: The October Crisis of 1970 and Reaction: A Portrait of a Society in Crisis, two documentaries by Robin Spry utilizing extensive archival footage
  • Trailers
  • PLUS: New essays by Quebec film scholar André Loiselle and Canadian art critic and historian David Silcox

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If Rocky 4 Happened For Real (Tony Yacenda, 2015)

Is everyone having a great holiday season? Let’s make sure!

Today is Boxing Day and what better way to observe it than with this hilarious reconsideration of Rocky Balboa’s triumphant Christmas Day victory over Ivan Drago, a boxing match for which the Italian Stallion gave up his championship in order to defeat the man who killed Apollo Creed. Who could have expected that this unsanctioned bout would become a landmark victory for democracy and a turning point in the Cold War. MMC!’s admiration for the ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series is no secret and this CollegeHumor parody is a pitch perfect pastiche of that sports program’s house style. All the high points are here – the James Brown performance, the robot, the whiffing swings, the lack of defence, and the inexplicable reversal of allegiances – and Max Kellerman’s appearance here is inspired, placing him right in his pugilistic wheelhouse. Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (1985) got a new cut back in November as Rocky IV: Rocky x Drago that adjusted the aspect ratio, excised the exploding gloves intro, Paulie’s birthday, and the robot, recontextualized the events of Rocky III, diminished the role of Brigitte Nielsen and Hugo Boss, and made sundry other edits. I guess Rocky was right: Everyone (including Rocky IV itself) can change.

Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America (Charles Grodin, 1969)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America.

criterion logoDirected by their friend Charles Grodin and airing almost two months before the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s 1969 television special Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America previewed their landmark album and shows the two on stage, in the studio, and on a concert tour across a turbulent country. The documentary follows the duo in cinéma verité style while interspersing footage of the social movements that defined a nation growing more aware, more sophisticated, and more complex. The special’s initial sponsor infamously balked at footage of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the Poor People’s March on Washington, and the recently slain Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Though unpopular at the time, Songs of America has become an enduring portrait of an era and of Simon & Garfunkel as artists, with incisive commentary provided by iconic songs like “America,” “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Sound of Silence,” “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New high-definition digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Robert Ryan’s 1969 introduction to the television special
  • The Harmony Game, Jennifer Lebeau’s 2011 feature-length documentary on the making of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water album
  • Remembering Chuck, new interviews with Simon and Garfunkel on their personal and professional friendship with Grodin
  • Saturday Night Live sketch from 1977 featuring Charles Grodin, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel
  • PLUS: A new essay by rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres

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Bandits of Orgosolo – Ten Documentary Shorts (Vittorio De Seta, 1955-1961)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Bandits of Orgosolo • Ten Documentary Shorts by Vittorio De Seta.

Heralded by Martin Scorsese as “an anthropologist who speaks with the voice of a poet,” Italian director Vittorio De Seta produced a string of extraordinary short documentaries in the 1950s that distill their subjects to pure cinema. Shooting in vivid color in the rural villages of Sicily, Sardinia, and Calabria, De Seta captured the rhythms and rituals of everyday life among the fishermen, miners, shepherds, and farmers who continued to live and work according to the preindustrial traditions of their ancestors. These shorts were followed by Bandits of Orgosolo, which presented with neorealist authenticity the tragic plight of a poor Sardinian shepherd unfairly accused of rustling and murder. Together, these miniature marvels and this hardscrabble feature-film debut stand as essential, ennobling records of a vanished world.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfers of all eleven films, overseen by the World Cinema Project in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-rays:
    • The Age of Swordfish (1954 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) Vittorio De Seta’s rhythmic editing adds drama to this chronicle of a Sicilian spearfishing expedition.
    • Islands of Fire (1954 • 11 minutes • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) This prize-winning short is a poetic portrait of life on the coast of Sicily before, during, and following a volcanic eruption.
    • Solfatara (1955 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) Harshness and beauty exist side by side in this look at the lives of sulfur mine workers and their families in southern Italy.
    • Easter in Sicily (1955 • 10 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2:35:1 aspect ratio) De Seta captures the music and pageantry of an Easter celebration in Sicily.
    • Sea Countrymen (1955 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) The rhythms of the sea set the tempo for this vivid account of a day in the lives of Sicilian fishermen.
    • Golden Parable (1955 • 10 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) Filming amid the flaxen wheat fields of Sicily, De Seta documents the everyday rituals of farmers during harvest time.
    • Fishing Boats (1958 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) The unpredictable nature of the sea governs the world of Sicilian fishermen as they work, rest, and seek refuge from a storm.
    • Orgosolo’s Shepherds (1958 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) The striking landscapes of rural Sardinia provide the backdrop to this lyrical look at the hard-earned lives of the region’s shepherds in winter.
    • A Day in Barbagia (1958 • 11 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) From sunrise to sunset, De Seta chronicles the lives of Sardinian women who look after both home and fields while their shepherd husbands are away tending their flocks.
    • The Forgotten (1959 • 21 minutes • Color • Monaural • 2.35:1 aspect ratio) De Seta travels to a remote province in southern Italy to capture a unique celebration known as the “Feast of Silver.”
    • Bandits of Orgosolo (1961 • 95 minutes • Black and White • Monaural • 1.37:1 aspect ratio) Returning to the Sardinian countryside, De Seta presents a ruinous portrait of a poor shepherd wrongfully associated with some bandits and forced to flee, taking his flock and his younger brother into remote, inhospitable lands.
  • Introduction by Il Cinema Ritrovato film festival chief Gian Luca Farinelli
  • New interview with director Martin Scorsese
  • Détour De Seta, a 2004 documentary by Salvo Cuccia
  • The Filmmaker is an Athlete: Conversations with Vittorio De Seta, Vincent Sorrel and Barbara Vey’s 2010 interview with De Seta
  • New English subtitle translations
  • PLUS: Essays by scholar Alexander Stille and critic J. Hoberman

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