Thursday 28 March 2019


Now in cinemas and on VOD, Bing Liu's Oscar nominated documentary follows the lives of three skateboarders in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois.

It's almost a cliche that when you see a group of skateboarders one of them will be holding a camera, but what are they going to do with all that footage? Sometimes it's turned into montages of slickly delivered moves or a compilation of epic fails that they can watch in their front room, but in the case of Bing Liu he's taken that footage then pivoted his camera towards his friends lives away from their boards, giving us one of the most moving studies of masculinity you'll see this year.

The film focuses on three main subjects - Keire, a young black man looking for a way to make his family proud; Zack, a dropout hoping to fulfil his duties as a father, and Bing, the director of this film dealing with his own family trauma. It's perhaps an obvious statement to make, but Minding the Gap isn't really about skateboarding. It's more about living up to familial and societal expectations, understanding how the sins of the father fall upon their children and breaking a cycle of abuse through the support and common (in this case tarmacced) ground we share with our friends.

Rockford, Illinois is shown to be a smorgasbord of skating arenas, where the youth are able to film themselves performing tricks and be largely ignored by the local police, just as long as they stay out of trouble. Zack, the charming and rebellious Bam Margera-alike leader of the group has his demons close to the surface, often revealed when his drinking gets the better of him. This is a film compiled of footage and events from close to a decade of filming, and particularly in the case of Zack, it pulls no punches in depicting him with deep, troubling flaws, whilst allowing him the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. Zack is arguably the initial focus of the film, but much like the younger generation of skaters featured in the film who begin to pity his lifestyle instead of revere his lack of responsibility, there comes a point where he doesn't seem like the fun guy to hang out with anymore.

It is Keire who has the truest emotional journey of the film. As the youngest member of a predominantly white group of friends, although it is never something they aim to do he is clearly made to be uncomfortable by some of their othering of black people. There is a scene filmed at a social gathering where his face cannot hide the discomfort he feels as someone tells a joke that includes the N word, something that is caught by Liu's camera but that the group of friends are oblivious too. Keire rides a board that states "this device cures heartache", although one recurring event in the film is how often he breaks his boards by accident, his serenity giving way to anger that his means of escape has gone. One scene flashes back to a much younger Keire taking revenge on a bully by attempting to break his board, but as a small child at the time he doesn't have the physical strength to do it or the emotional strength to walk away. As an adult he is now learning how to do that.

Although it's clear that Keire's relationship with his father was strained at best, he often returns to his father's words in order to make sense of his place in the world, told that "if you could choose again, choose to be black" because you consistently get to prove people wrong. Keire is a young man determined to make something of himself in a way that Zack hasn't had top contemplate. Although the film does focus on Zack and Keire with Bing using his own story to form bridges between them, there is the presence of Nina, the mother of Zack's child, that offers the film another viewpoint. She is largely the only female voice in the film, and can be seen to have the most solid growth into adulthood and a world of responsibilities.

The visual language of a "skateboarding film" is well established by now, but as well as the on-board tracking camera and over shoulder interviews there are a number of motifs the film keeps returning to. Rockford almost feels like a deserted town with no "adults", with static shots of solidly built family homes suggesting more happening on the inside. The subjects' parents are present, most notably Bing's heartbreaking interview with his mother, but at its core Minding the Gap is about a journey down a road with your friends by your side.

With his directorial debut Liu has earmarked himself as one to watch. As director, editor, cinematographer and subject, he tracks a number of issues that he and his friends have had to face, including some horrific instances of domestic abuse that has had a deep effect on all three men. All three may have used skateboarding as a way to escape their family homes, but by looking past race, class and wealth he finds the commonality between them.


Saturday 23 March 2019


The follow up to his 2006 documentary Sharkwater, this sequel sees activist and director Rob Stewart dive further into the 80 million shark deaths per year that are unaccounted for.

The original 2006 documentary causes some waves (yes, a pun) on its release, forcing governments to react and leading to the banning of shark-finning in countries around the world. This next chapter starts with a horrific and heartbreaking reminder of the need for action, showing a shark get stripped of its fin for soup and then callously thrown back into the ocean to die. Here director Rob Stewart and his team hope to continue the momentum of their previous work and shed light on the often illegal practices that are putting the future of this species and ours into jeopardy.

It's a worrying statistic that we kill 150 million sharks a year, but scientists can only account for 70 million of those. So what is happening to the others, and why can't governments offer any explanation as to how this is happening in their waters? A small group of activists with relatively limited resources, it's impressive how close Stewart and his team are able to get to high ranking officials in the Costa Rican government, and the danger of meeting people afraid to say too much to them for fear of reprisal from local "businessmen".

The film tries to tackle the problem of a pending shark extinction from a number of angles, meeting tourism fisherman such as Mark 'The Shark' in Miami, who estimates that he personally has killed 50 thousand sharks, although others place the figure closer to 100 thousand. The team also witnesses a spoiled haul of 38 thousand fins in trash bags, seized before it could be illegal transported across the border. Rob and his team also investigate the loophole where, although 90 countries have banned the practice of shark-finning, they haven't banned the import of shark fins. This means fishing vessels just need to move their cargo to a shipping vessel before they arrive into port to get around the law, something his crew capture on film happening metres away from the dock. Another thread of the film is how consumers are being mislead about how widespread a problem the disappearance of these sharks is; proven when, after purchasing a number of products ranging from cat food to face cream at supermarkets and fast food restaurants, they get them tested in a lab for traces of shark DNA. The results are shocking and a worrying sign of how little we know about where the latest 'secret ingredients' come from.

It's hard to disagree with Rob Stewart's assessment that the only reason these destructive and aggressive methods of fishing are allowed is because the wider public don't know about them. The following could be considered a spoiler, but if you're coming to this film with any prior knowledge of the filmmaking team you will be aware that director and driving force behind the project Rob Stewart tragically passed away in a diving accident in early 2017 when filming a sequence for the documentary. The incident is tactfully handled (completed by his long time collaborators) in a way that doesn't overshadow Stewart's goal to raise awareness of the plight of these sharks, whilst also honouring the devotion he gave to his life's work and allowing his message to be heard.

An exquisitely shot film that captures the majesty of the sharks in their undisturbed surroundings, for all the frenetic, undercover photography of Rob and his team turning spies above sea level, the serenity and beauty of the footage shot underwater is undeniable. A powerful documentary that carries more meaning and emotional weight than Stewart could have aimed for, the message of Sharkwater: Extinction is clear. This isn't some practice limited to lawless men in foreign lands, this is something that is happening in people's own countries with the willing participation of your government. An often harrowing journey, the atrocity after atrocity against these sharks shown here asks the audience to step up and do something to stop it. This is activist cinema at its finest.


Wednesday 13 March 2019


The second of this week's new 88 Films cannibal related releases sees a married couple venture into cannibal country in search of their kidnapped daughter, Flaurence.

Perhaps best known as one of the original video nasties, it's worth pointing out that this film only really made its name onto the list by virtue of having the word 'cannibal' in its title. To be fair, it does also feature cannibals in the film (I'm looking at you, Cannibal Holocaust 2 AKA Green Inferno), but 'Terror' is a bit of a stretch. The film begins with what can only be described as jaunty calypso music, as two thieves masquerading as businessmen (Olivier Matzot & Antonio Mayans) and a buxom woman (Pamela Stanford) decide to kidnap the daughter of a local dignitary and hide her out in a safe house at the edge of a "jungle". When one of the thieves, Mario, decides to rape the wife of the homeowner, they are forced to flee into the neighbouring woodlands inhabited by a tribe of cannibals.

Right from the off this film just seems off. The dubbing of a film from its original language to English can be unavoidably distracting, by why oh why did they choose to dub the little girl's voice with clearly that of a grown woman? Particularly when, in a film that has long stretches with no dialogue, this little girl doesn't ever seem to stop talking whenever she's on screen. Maybe we should be applauding them for avoiding a lazy stereotype, but the casting of young, white Spanish men as the cannibal tribe was a bold choice, or perhaps (more than likely) a helpful budgetary workaround to rope in people who liked the sound of appearing in a movie without really knowing what they were letting themselves in for. Wearing elaborate face paint designs, they look less like your typical cannibal tribe and more like the front row of an Ultimate Warrior tribute wrestling match.

The entire concept is ill conceived, with a number of poorly delivered scenarios constituting what amounts for a plot. For some reason the filmmakers have decided that it would be a good idea to cross cut between a sex scene with no actual bearing to the plot with a vicious rape out in the woods, what dialogue there is is of the standard of "this is right on the edge of cannibal country. They'd love to put you in a soup", and although cannibals are a real phenomenon, this film seems to think they're just better organised zombies. There's debate over the actual amount of involvement from Jess Franco, prolific director and writer of White Cannibal Queen, Zombie Lake and countless other low budget exploitation films, but one would assume he jumped ship fairly early on as even by his standards, this is pretty low grade stuff.

Now, I'm not saying there isn't things to enjoy about this film. For a start, the re-using of actors in multiple roles has to be commended. For example, when one of the main characters gets eaten by the cannibals, the same actor appears 15 minutes later wearing a huge fake handlebar moustache, and in what is one of the bravest filmmaking choices I've ever seen, they re-use the same actor playing the cannibal chief as a different character IN THE SAME SCENE.

This may be an unforgivably dreadful piece of filmmaking, but I'd be lying if I didn't find elements of Cannibal Terror to enjoy out of sheer ridiculousness. If you're a fan of schlocky genre fare, I would imagine this would go down a treat with some friends and the ability to pause, rewind and re-enjoy.


Special Features-
 -That's not the Amazon! - The strange store of the Eurocine cannibal film cycle.
 -Deleted scenes


Released on the 88 Films label, this Italian production sees a group of westerners encounter more than they bargained for in the Amazon jungle, AKA The Green Inferno. The plot (what there is of it) consists of four travellers, searching for a missing professor in the Amazon jungle and interacting with the Imas tribe in order to earn their way back out again. In the jungle they capture monkeys using blowpipes, have a close call with a jaguar and are witness to some bizarre and potentially deadly customs, such as having their exposed genitals threatened by a poisonous snake. The message here is, if you go down to the Amazon jungle today, don't be surprised if you end up dead.

Release number 49 in 88 Films' long running series of vintage Italian shockers, this 1988 Antonio Climati film (variously known as Natura Contro/Against Nature, Green Inferno and in some places as Cannibal Holocaust 2) is a strange, often confusing journey through cultural stereotypes. Firstly, if you approach this film looking for something akin to Cannibal Holocaust, you'll be sorely disappointed by the lack of cannibals as the closest this film gets to flesh-eating is the tiny fish that tries to swim up a guide's rectum.

To wind it back a bit, the film starts with the pretty cool stealing of a sea-plane which is then driven down the highway to their take off destination, followed by the introduction of Jemma (May Deseligny) a journalist interviewing a man about shrunken heads but more concerned with the whereabouts of a missing professor who has entered the Amazon jungle never to be seen again. With her three co-conspirators, they follow his path into the jungle and into immediate danger. Perhaps the biggest problem this film faces is the inescapable feeling that the main characters (jock guy, jock guy number 2, nerd with glasses and woman) deserve anything that happens to them as frankly, they shouldn't be there in the first place.

Still, the location is wonderful, and there's a gonzo documentary approach to the early scenes catching shots of fresh water dolphins and tending to ill monkeys in a way to establish the exotic weirdness of their destination but also the beauty of this land, untouched by modern life until now. The main characters take part in the capture of tree-dwelling monkey using blow darts in a manner that is slightly unsetting. Whether it's the sight of drugged up monkeys or the capture of a jaguar in a pit, if you know anything about the lack of animal welfare in films of the late 1970s and 80s (most notoriously in this film's cinematic step-cousin Cannibal Holocaust) it's easy to be distracted by how real the danger to these animals appears to be. Along with that, the actors appear to be in some danger too, as they come perilously close to the jaguar as they attempt to drag it out of the pit.

Apart from sounding like a kick-ass name for a super hero, the Green Inferno is another name for the uncompromising Amazon Rainforest, shown to be the most deadly place imaginable, but then also a giant water park built for the pleasure of the white folk. A native girl is caught by the current and is at risk of drowning in the river? No worries, just get dragged behind the seaplane using your feet as makeshift skis to save the day. There's a strange mix of tone that is at once a deadly trip into the jungle using witch doctors to heal snake bites, but then laughing and joking around, not dissimilar to Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach.

It may be a greatest hits of jungle hysteria, but as long as you don't go into it expecting flesh-eating tribesmen and gory body mutilations, Green Inferno is a fun, bizarre and occasionally culturally problematic travelogue.


Special Features-
 -Option to play the film in English or Italian (either way the dubbing doesn't line up)
 -Scenes from documentary 'Banned Alive'
 -Italian opening and closing credits