Thursday 14 November 2019


When notorious shock magician The Amazing Johnathan was diagnosed with a terminal illness and given a year to live, three years later he invites a camera crew to follow him around as he attempts to make a comeback.

Johnathan, a shock magician whose act included him performing acts of bodily harm on himself like hacking his arm up with a butchers knife, is probably best known outside of his long running Las Vegas shows for his appearances on the Penn and Teller TV shows that brought his brand of extreme tricks and dark humour to an international audience. Now dealing with the effects of his 2014 cardiomyopathy diagnosis which requires an intensive course of pills that make him retch, coupled with a more than casual drink and drug problem that worries his wife Anastasia, an urge to perform along with a desire to make money sees him ignore doctor's advice and hit the circuit again to face a legion of fans unaware of the extent of his woes. In the opening minutes of this film we see a clearly weak Johnathan declare on stage he was told he has "a year to live", met with laughter from some of the audience expecting some of his trademark black humour to follow, instead flatly replying with "not a joke".

But this film is not a document of The Amazing Johnathan's (real name Johnathan Szeles) illness, recovery, or tour. No, this film is about the megalomania and vanity behind the man, and the strained relationship that forms between Szeles and the director of this film, Ben Berman. For the first third of the film it is a fairly traditional documentary, charting the history and day to day life of Szeles as a performer, but this format falls victim to his need for fame when it's callously revealed to Berman (by Johnathan) that there is not only a second documentary crew following Szeles around, but they're supposedly linked to documentary super producer Simon Chinn and his Oscar winning Searching for Sugarman/Man on Wire team and are being given priority. It's at this point that Berman steps out in front of the camera for the first time, and the focus of this film shifts entirely.

I first saw Ben Berman's film at this year's Sheffield Documentary Festival (Doc/Fest), and boy, what an overwhelmingly pleasant surprise it was. I won't delve too far into the revelations of the film, as part of the joy is seeing the sheer egomaniacal madness in Berman's film unravel before him. What makes The Amazing Johnathan Documentary such an addictive watch is the Exit Through The Gift Shop-like rollercoaster ride we are witness to, as Berman helps to salvage a film out of the wreckage of Szeles's duplicity towards him, and I'm using that word in the loosest sense. Documentary fans will appreciate the truly unique relationship that develops between the documentarian and his subject, as Berman contemplates smoking meth on camera with Szeles to hopefully elevate his standing with him; and comedy fans will just enjoy the lunacy of it all.

It's a bold, potentially catastrophic decision to make a film called The Amazing Johnathan Documentary and not have him be the sole focus; but although this may alienate some of his hardcore fans wanting a more traditional story of his life (don't worry, that doc is also out there), it's a spark of genius on Berman's part to have the camera turned back onto himself, Adaptation style. Part Andy Kaufman and part Charlie Kaufman, Berman tries to tell the true story of who Szeles is by telling his own personal story as a filmmaker who wants to deliver the best documentary he can about a subject who treats him like dirt once the higher profile team appear, and who might even be lying about his condition.

This is Berman's feature debut, but he's been working for years as a director and writer for Funny or Die's short sketches, and it shows. He's got fantastic comic timing and is well aware of how to craft a moment, filling this film with countless rug pulls and comic and dramatic revelations delivered at just the right moment. Again, no spoilers here, but as he faces up to the fact that the perfect resolution to his underdog film would be either the death of The Amazing Johnathan or the reveal that he wasn't dying at all, the conclusion he comes to that would make him and most of all, Johnathan, happy is pure documentary bliss.

Is this a profile of infamous Las Vegas magician The Amazing Johnathan? Not exactly. Do you end up learning more about the real Johnathan Szeles, and his documentarian, than you expected and/or probably wanted? Undoubtedly. Ben Berman deserves praise for his willingness to play with the established rules of documentary to give us what is an exciting, bold, playful, and above all funny film, that shows what happens when a fragile ego and desire to entertain crash headfirst into each other. Whether those things belong to Szeles or Berman is up to you to decide.

An absolute must see.


Monday 11 November 2019

MAN MADE review

Now available on demand to coincide with Trans Visibility Week, Man Made follows a group of transgender bodybuilders as they prepare for the only competition in the world open to transgender men, Trans FitCon.

Following four of the contestants as they prepare for the event whilst also living their day to day lives as transgender men with vastly different stories to tell, director T Cooper (a writer and producer on The Get Down and The Blacklist) gets intimate access to their struggles and fight to be recognised as the people they always wanted to be. The Trans FitCon event is not one that is solely judged on mass or technique, but rather encourages its participants to express their physicality on stage through body building poses, no matter what their physical form is (the event is open to anyone who self-identifies as a transgender male).

Aside from the last act of the documentary when we arrive at the competition, Man Made is hardly about body building at all. What drives this documentary is much more personal, spending a long time getting to know each of the four main subjects and the different struggles they all face on a daily basis. Dominic is the first bodybuilder we're introduced to just as he's preparing for his top surgery, allowing Cooper to film some of the procedure, along with his recovery afterwards. Dominic competed at the previous Trans FitCon event before top surgery, and plans to use this year to show off his scars and how pleased he is with the results. In a film that is all about self expression, Dominic, a lively 26 year old rapper, is very much the voice of the film. His trans story is the most eloquently expressed, along with his search via Facebook for his birth mother.

If Dominic is the voice, the next body builder, Mason, is the heart of the film. Mason, as well as Trans Fitcon, has competed in mainstream body-building events but has recently learned that he is barred from competing in a local event due to his transgender status via a passive aggressive email that starts "Hello Mr/Ms". With 4% body fat and a strict eating regimen, he is focused on winning the competition with a dedication that may border on obsessive; but over the course of the film reveals some of the darker, more confusing times in his past when he contemplated suicide, and also thanks to the magic of videotape, a surprising and very moving segue to when he was younger and got to tell Ellen DeGeneres how inspired he was by her story.

The two remaining key subjects, Rese and Kennie, have incredibly touching stories that hammer home how making the decision to transition has affected their families and loved ones. Rese no longer has contact with his mother, and after a spell being homeless, is now hoping to move his son along with his new wife to pastures new. Kennie's story is a unique one in that it has impacted his relationship with partner DJ, who as a proud lesbian is now unsure if the romantic relationship will withstand both a change in Kennie's appearance after starting on testosterone, but also her own status as a gay woman.

Cooper's documentary has plenty of human interest boxes ticked, and offers a unique and interesting look at how the world of body building and self expression have clear correlations with the trans journey. All four main subjects have inspiring and vastly different stories that mean they are all driven by different things, and although success at the event clearly means more to some than others, the fact they have a place to participate and express their physicality is important to everyone. Towards the end of the film some of the contestants take part in the Atlanta Trans March on the morning of the competition and have to face off against the bigotry of the uneducated transphobes. Although the film doesn't often stray into darkness and it's encouraging to see that through events such as Trans FitCon that strides have been made to promote inclusivity, Cooper's film doesn't want us to forget that it's still a dangerous world out there for the trans community.

What Man Made makes abundantly clear is that there is no one single trans story. This film just about manages to include four, but from the 12 men who have entered the competition and the voices of some of their families, it's clear that every single person has a different story to tell. Although success at the Trans FitCon event is a common goal, it's the acceptance rather than the trophy that they're after.


Saturday 2 November 2019


Featuring acclaimed sound designers Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom and countless more, now in cinemas and on demand is Midge Costin's documentary about the journey of sound at the movies.

Making Waves starts with a big idea that is hard to dispute. Sound is the first thing we're exposed to, in the darkness of the womb, making what sense we can of the world with the information we're given. It's not too big a leap to equate this to the experience of cinema, with storytellers like Spielberg, Lucas, Kubrick and Coppola name checked as creative pioneers who understood the importance that sound was to their films. That might sound like an obvious statement (as Ang Lee states in the film "movies is sight and sound"), but by charting the history of cinema this film digs deep into how the art of cinematic sound has expanded its role.

Within the first few minutes of Making Waves, we're introduced to talking heads from Walter Murch, Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom, three hugely important contributors to how we experience sound at the movies; and they're just the tip of the iceberg for this film, which has an astonishing line-up of key industry figures on show. The film is largely split into two distinct chapters, firstly following the emergence of sound in cinema from the days of silent film to the introduction of sync dialogue and "talkies" in 1927's The Jazz Singer, and right up to the use of digital sound editing techniques in The Matrix and Pixar films that use numerous layered tracks to create this orchestra. Then the film pivots to be an in depth breakdown of every facet of the "Circle of Talent" that creates what we hear when we go to the cinema; so if you've ever wanted to know what ADR is, here you go. Understanding all these different areas of expertise can be a bit overwhelming, so the film uses some helpful on screen graphics to illustrate each discipline which seem daunting enough to make you wonder why anyone would want to make anything as labour intensive as a film, let alone a big budget blockbuster.

During the first half of Making Waves, there's a sense that with the focus on Walter Murch and his work with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas at American Zoetrope, that we're headed to one film in particular; Star Wars. This actually comes surprisingly early into the film, with the Oscar winning achievements of Ben Burtt well documented (answering the question of what a Wookie sounds like by recording and manipulating the many noises of a bear). It was a given that Star Wars and the Star Destroyer roaring into frame was going to be a feature of this film, but what's surprising is the other films that played an important role in how we experience sound at the cinema today, chiefly the pivotal role Barbra Streisand and her version of A Star Is Born played in introducing stereo sound to cinemas.

There's a danger to films of this ilk that they become 'Film Studies for Beginners' whilst also largely appealing to people who've already studied it. Although there's a certain degree of that when covering the history of the medium, there's also genuine insight from professionals that you won't hear anywhere else that's sure to leave you with the burning desire to immediately re-watch an ever expanding list of cinematic greats. The enthusiasm for their craft is clear, and it's easy to be in awe of their achievements.

Listen up. Making Waves is not only a must see for film fans, it's a must hear.