Tag Archives: Documentary

Maiden

[3.5 stars]

Back in 1985 there were barely any women involved in the Whitbread Round the World Race (now known as The Ocean Race after a series of changes in sponsorship). Tracy Edwards was one of them. Her first experience with the chauvinistic wall she hit convinced her that the only way to be respected and get the opportunities she wanted was to put together her own crew and sail her own boat in the race. In 1989, she did just that with a crew made up solely of women.

Director Alex Holmes tells the story of the Maiden as well as the very personal journey of Tracy herself. One of the most amazing aspects of the film is how much original footage from the race, on the boat, that they had. Much like Free Solo, at some point you’re just as amazed that someone was taking the images as you are with the people in the situation.

While the story is fairly simple, the documentary pulls you along expertly, making you hope and gasp and shout…not to mention feel a sense of joy. It is a film every young woman must see but it speaks to everyone who has ever had what others determined was an impossible dream.

Hail Satan?

[4 stars]

Hellz yes, you should see this film.

Documentarian Penny Lane (Our Nixon) provides an entertaining and informative look inside the The Satanic Temple… and it’s most likely not what you think at all. Her film is a timely piece of reporting and a fascinating mental shift to experience. The way she walks you away from your preconceptions to the reality also demonstrates her command of the story.

But this isn’t a dry and boring tale. I laughed a lot…in all the right places. Lane, and the members of the TST, are full of wry humor. Given the situations they are involved in, that alone will up-level your sense of respect.

So, yeah, make time for this.

[And for the heck of it…and completely off topic, though topical: a Quartz Obsession on the history of Hell]

Amazing Grace

[3 stars]

Aretha! What more do you need to know?

Come to this for the joy of the music and the significance of the moment (not to mention some of the people captured on screen).

OK, to be fair, this is more a behind-the-scenes look at the making of one of the most famous gospel albums of all time than a full documentary.

What you get is a peek at Aretha working, as opposed to just purely performing. You get to see her roots, some of the depth of her beliefs, and a little of her family and background.

Recorded live with an audience, Sydney Pollack (Sliding Doors, Eyes Wide Shut) tried to capture the event and energy. This is not Pollack’s Stop Making Sense. It doesn’t create a story, it is unable to really capture the feeling of live gospel, and the quality of the visuals is pretty grainy (though the sound is restored nicely). There are reasons for all this, not the least that it is from 1972 and many technical issues plagued the shooting and post-production. Aretha herself never wanted this movie released, even after they solved many of the sound problems; no one in public knows what her objections were.

But it is released now and it is a gift to her public. It isn’t her best performance. The music isn’t the most exciting, nor is it organized in a way to pull you along or take you on an emotional journey. It simply is. It is a visual album that is a balm to the nerves and delight to your heart, even if it isn’t your type of music or even your religion (for the record, it is neither to me). But it is worth your time.

Woman at War (Kona fer í stríð)

[4 stars]

Whether you think of this as a tale of activism, environmentalism, or eco-terrorism, Woman at War will provide something to chew on. And, though you wouldn’t expect such a film to be a source of comedy while making its point, it manages to walk that line wonderfully as well.

Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir (Trapped) plays this as honest and driven, but never strident. As herself and her own twin, she explores many layers and pulls us along her journey. She is joined by a small cast to fill out the tale in and around Reykjavik. Juan Camillo Roman Estrada is the odd character out in a thankless but important role that is both comic relief and additional social commentary.

Director Benedikt Erlingsson put together a darkly amusing script with Trapped’s Ólafur Egilsson (and a few of its cast). It never loses track of its point, but manages to deal with it all without getting overly earnest. Even as it purposefully reflects other movies at points (Force Majeure comes to mind), it keeps the story just light enough to make itself heard.

Make time for this one…especially if you’ve been watching or reading any of the sagas coming out of Iceland of late.

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Step

[3 stars]

Step is an interesting look at the lives of three young women trying to escape poverty. It isn’t, however, a great documentary about how Step made that possible for them, despite the title. Unlike Brooklyn Castle, the story promised in the title of this film never really takes shape. Step isn’t so much the goal and glue that shapes the women as it is simply the crossroads that brings them and the filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz, together to tell their story.

That doesn’t make it uninteresting as a long form piece of journalism, but it is better going in knowing the real focus. In addition, Lipitz had no idea how to film the Step performances so you could see them well either, which was frustrating. Step is best viewed from a little distance so you can see whole team. But this film does a lot of close-ups, odd angles, and unnecessary quick cuts that keep you from ever appreciating what the team put together.

For the stories of the women and to see what a school that takes its charge seriously, to teach and improve the lives of its students, this is worth the viewing time. As a film, it is middling at best. Go in expecting an extended 60 Minutes piece and you’ll be better attuned to the journey you are provided.

Kumaré

[3 stars]

This rather unique documentary starts with a quote: Faith starts as an experiment and ends as an experience. The sentiment, by the 19th century author and priest William Ralph Inge, serves as framework and a way to set expectations around the documentary experiment created by Vikram Gandhi. And the expectations are necessary as the initial setup feels like it could only lead to hurtful disaster. And while lovers of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Dictator, Brüno) and prank shows may have found that an acceptable outcome, it definitely isn’t what I look for in entertainment, let alone a documentary.

Ghandi’s experiment was put together with a cold disregard for the impact on the subjects of his deception and was entirely focused on the questions he wanted to answer. In other words, it could only have been conceived by a PhD academic. But it is clear early on that the experimentor is, himself, being shaped by his own framework in some way. What we witness over the course of the film is both the fragility and gullibility of people in dual track with a real sense of spirituality.

Ghandi isn’t a brilliant filmmaker. He isn’t even a brilliant academic. However, his willingness to commit to his path to the very end is fascinating. And the results of his efforts are, if not surprising, thought provoking. For an evening of pondering humanity with a wry sense of humor and a bit of self-reflection, it’s worth your time.

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

[3 stars}

We all know Mapplethorpes (both sides: people, flowers), Worhals, Lichtensteins, Michaelangelos, Calders, Pollacks, Van Gogh, Banksys, and Degas (the list can go on and on), if not by name by familiar sight. But did you ever wonder why you knew them? Why, when these artists were pushing the boundaries of art, who was it that was explaining to the world why it mattered? Or, at least, convinced the world it mattered. In centuries past, it was dynasties like the Medici. In current times it is critics and collectors who have the ear of the museums and media.

The Square attempted to tackle this question a couple years ago in fiction. But this documentary takes on the life and impact of a single man who was a fulcrum point for many artistic movements and shifts in public perception, not to mention culture: Sam Wagstaff. Not a name that comes trippingly to the tongue, but an important one nonetheless.

Learning about Wagstaff’s life and impact are the best parts of James Crump’s documentary, which is otherwise extremely staid, dry, and in its way, scholarly. In other words this 80ish minute walk through history and lives is more like a class lesson than a gripping bit of documentary. That doesn’t make it less interesting, but certainly shrinks its audience to the PBS crowd even if the subject matter might intrigue a wider group.

Despite the title, this really is about Wagstaff, with some passing information on his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is important to Wagstaff’s story, but the title is a bit misleading. Mapplethorpe was a flashpoint in American art, arts funding, and the government. He was the tipping point that conservatives used to start killing the NEA and NEH and using it, instead, as a propaganda machine for conservative values. The terrified conservatives weren’t completely successful, but you can trace the approach and hate and battle that is going on today between government funding for the arts in a fairly straight line back to the early 80s and artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano.

This is far from a great documentary, but it is some interesting background and a huge amount of visual representation, video and stills, of the pieces involved. Many people, including Patti Smith, who knew the men well provide first-hand accounts of their lives and interactions. As a lesson in art history it is a nicely condensed overview of Wagstaff and his life and impact, with nods to Mapplethorpe. As a question raised as to the veracity of taste and what drives what is accepted, it is somewhat intriguing. As a movie, even as a first documentary for Crump, it is middling but for its willingness to show and discuss material that is often avoided.

Meet the Patels

[4 stars]

Surprising, sweet, and delightful, not to mention full of humor and genuine affection. I can’t say I knew what to expect going into this journey of Ravi and Geeta Patel and their family, but it engaged me almost immediately. This short, sort-of-documentary follows Ravi, better known as a character actor, as he attempts to find a wife. It is an open-eyed and open-minded look at arranged marriage and dating in the modern world.

Using rough family footage and interspersed simple animation, the two put together an overview-with-commentary of his year long journey.  Though she tries to remain behind the camera his sister is part of this journey as well, by extension and comments, making this very much a family affair.

Unless you are part of the culture, this isn’t likely an area you know much about, other than at a distance or through the last season of The Big Bang Theory. Dropping into the middle of it all in a positive way is a story worth hearing. And, fortunately, it is done with a great deal of heart and humor that invites us not only into Ravi’s life and his family’s, but also into the clan Patel.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

[4 stars]

What makes this documentary fascinating is less the presentation of the material than the insights it provides. It is also one of the oddest adaptations I think I’ve encountered. Kent Jones attempts to bring to life the infamous 1960s interviews that produced the book Hitchcock/Truffaut by Truffaut…a book which he later revised and re-released in 1985 a few years after Hitch left us and just before his own death.

What emerges, however, is more of an audio book and commentary about the interview’s revelations, cherry-picked by Jones and his collection of famous directors who were influenced by these two giants of cinema. Think of it as skipping through the book to some of the more interesting parts and getting to chat about them. The result is still a fascinating look at Hitchcock’s thinking, though more so at the way others interpret him. It also likely expands your knowledge of size of Hitchcock’s opus. You may find  yourself trying to find at least some of his earlier films that are much less well known.

This docu is certainly an interesting multiplier to the fictionalized look at his life in The Girl and Hitchcock even if its shape is a bit amorphous. If you love cinema and are drawn to understanding it, this is a must see film. But even those with passing interest will find something to chew on and will recognize the men…and it is all men…discussing how watching Hitch and Truffaut provided the impetus and artistic goals that have guided their lives and our viewing history for the last nearly 100 years.