Reviews

Illuminating the Marvelous Spectacle of Lucha Libre: 'Tales of Masked Men'

While probably not as exhilarating as watching a match itself, Tales of Masked Men is a fascinating introduction into the colorful history of lucha libre and its influence on Mexican culture.


Tales of Masked Men: A Journey Through Lucha Libre

Director: Carlos Avila
Cast: Miguel Sandoval
Distributor: PBS
Release fate: 2012-11-20

Professional wrestling has been called the poor man’s theatre and has long been cited as an example of low culture. Some people like to emphasize that it’s fake, while others like to argue that it’s a sport. You can either dismiss it as throwaway entertainment or be thrilled by the action and colorful characters. There isn’t much room for a middle ground.

Say what you will about professional wrestling, if you give it a chance and watch enough characters fly off the top rope, the spectacle can be intoxicating. While Vince McMahon’s WWE has made a steady dent in American pop culture for decades, professional wresting in Mexico is a distinct phenomenon all its own, full of stories of colorful characters that have remained virtually untold outside of the country. Tales of the Masked Men, now available on DVD, is a one-hour documentary that provides a wonderful introduction into the spectacular world of the lucha libre style of wresting. The film originally aired as a part of VOCES on PBS, the public broadcasting station's series on Latino arts and culture.

The documentary is directed by Carlos Avila. Avila, who aside from directing an episode of television’s Cold Case, created the stunning half-hour PBS drama series Foto-Novelas, does a more than adequate job moving swiftly while maintaining polished production values. His efficiency seems to be his biggest strength.

The movie promises “a journey through lucha libre” and it certainly delivers that. In 55 quick minutes, the film traces the beginnings of lucha libre from the early '30s to today. It moves purposely and rapidly but never at a breakneck pace that might leave you feeling lost.

It spends the majority of its time spotlighting three of the most prominent lucha libre wrestlers. The iconic legacy of El Santo, the famous “mini” wrestler Mascarita Sagrada, and celebrated veteran Solar are all discussed at length. These three profiles serve to provide accurate, varied snapshots of a few of the most memorable, respected movers and shakers in the beloved sport’s history.

El Santo, the industry’s most legendary masked superstar is the first to be highlighted. The film briefly analyzes not only on his ties to the origins of lucha libre and his overwhelming popularity in the ring but also his appearance in over 50 seemingly bizarre fantasy/adventure movies like La Bruja Maloitathat made him an internationally-known action hero of sorts and a walking symbol of the triumph of good over evil. Since he remained, not only the sport’s biggest icon, but also, by all the film’s accounts, generous and humble until his death in 1984, his presence was essential to the documentary’s success.

In Tales of Masked Men, “minis” or “midget wrestling”, as the sensation has been called in Mexico since the '40s, is also examined with balance and respect. Mascarita Sagrada, a famous 4' 5" wrestler, uses his dynamic masked identity to make him one of the sports biggest stars, little person or otherwise. Mascarita Sagrada tells a powerful story about overcoming odds, having an indomitable spirit, and finding purpose in life as a successful “mini”. As he says in an original interview for the film, “You don’t have to be big to do big things.”

It’s quickly obvious that the strangely mesmerizing topic of “midget wrestling” could easily become its own feature length documentary and it’s doubtful that the hot-button topic has ever been handled with such care and class. It’s fascinating to hear both wrestlers and fans of “minis” discuss how success in the ring has lead to better equality and understanding of little people nationwide.

Solar, a living legend in his fourth decade as a wrestler, gets the third and final spotlight, which works as a clever connecting point from the sports earlier megastars to the masked living legends of today to the future of the theatrical sport. Solar’s tale, like the others, beautifully portrays his devotion to the fans, arriving early at an event to spend time with the locals, for example, despite some less than stellar working conditions. Much of the camera time with Solar is also spent discussing the intriguing opportunity he has within the world of lucha libre to pass his character, mask, and entire legacy on to his son, who is currently competing as Solar Jr.

Most of the dialogue, logically, is in Spanish with English subtitles. Plenty of archival photos and video footage helps the stories come alive. Even old audio interviews of El Santo appear and flesh out his persona.

Oddly enough, photographers, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, journalists, and screenwriters, for example, get as much screen time as almost any experienced wrestler. These talking heads wax poetically about the sport and its impact, though the credibility of a couple of the interviewees is often ambiguous at best.

It sounds simple, but perhaps the most worthwhile observation about lucha libre from these spectators is the argument that the appeal of the sport is the exaggerated theatrics of the struggle between good and evil. Understandably, it’s the in-ring performers that deliver the most valuable reflections and remarkable stories.

A small luchador named Angel Mondragon provides the most entertaining insights on camera, mostly likely since he spent hours in the ring with these legends. For example, midway through the film, Mascarita Sagrada shows a lot of camaraderie with the jesting Mondragon, one of his mentors. In one of the most lighthearted moments of Tales of Masked Men, Mondragon jokes with Mascarita Sagrada about his start in the business. Mondragon hits his friend on the shoulder and chuckles, “You thought it was going to be easy!”

Miguel Sandoval, a character actor whose work is as varied as Do the Right Thing, Seinfeld ,Jurassic Park, and Entourage, does an incredible job as the film’s narrator. Sandoval’s resonant voice is so steadfast and authoritative that it certainly lends a sense of refined credibility to the documentary.

The talented Avila weaves in the right historical anecdotes along the way, mentioning Antonio Martinez’s design of the luchador mask style that’s still used today and an efficient analysis of how the lucha libre mask ties it to pre-Hispanic cultural celebrations. The sport’s reliance on an expressive participatory audience is an unexpectedly charming yet pervasive theme. There’s also a delightful reoccurring suggestion presented that these mask and cape wearing heroes of Mexico are like comic book panels come to life, which certainly seems likely by the film’s conclusion.

Ideally, documentaries should strike the perfect balance between being informative and entertaining. Tales of the Masked Men is wonderfully illuminating; it’s probably more informative than your average PBS program, which, of course, is really saying something. Do you know the stark difference between technicos and rudos? [They’re good guys and bad guys, respectively, which certainly helps quickly build in-ring conflict.] Did you know that lucha libre means “free fight” or “free struggle” or that a masked wrestler or “enmascarado” might wear his mask in all areas of his public life? The film will teach you these sorts of things. Yet, for a movie about the impact of colorfully masked wrestlers, it's a bit lacking in thrills, laughs, and drama.

Ultimately, Avila captures the flash and devotion surrounding the sport and its milestones, but fails to fully capture the fun of the wrestling matches that has assuredly made lucha libre such a draw for eighty years. The documentary quenches a thirst for knowledge about this “deeply Mexican spectacle”, but its delivery is sometimes too dry. As the film claims, the world of lucha libre is part theatre, part sport, and part circus. You don’t get enough of a feel of any of those energetic elements. The opening minutes show several minutes of rapidly edited shots of throws, flips, dropkicks, hurricanranas and raving fans, but the film never completely returns to that level of intensity or sheer entertainment. Though, it does make up for that, in a way, with its cultural insights and captivating stories.

With such a condensed run time, despite some superb direction that packs a lot of material in, Tales of Masked Men can hardly do the subject justice, but the documentary unquestionably succeeds in presenting a meaningful introduction to the sport. To its credit, it’ll leave you wanting more.

Sadly, there are no extras on the disc to give you more. Surely, there could have been more about the masked wrestlers to reveal as special features.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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