Tag Archives: Documentary

Side by Side

[4 stars]

It is the rare documentary that manages to keep me utterly intrigued. And Side by Side, while not the most perfect docu, pulls together such a wealth of top voices in the industry to discuss the advent of digital film vs. celluloid emulsion that it held my attention throughout. OK, it did drag a bit on the wrap up, but it was still fascinating.

Christopher Kenneally put this film together over a couple years, releasing it in 2012 and then extended versions of it a couple years later. He chose as his narrator Keanu Reeves (Replicas). One amusing effect of the time span is watching Reeves’s hair and beard change from scene to scene. Where most docus these days avoid having the interviewer present or visible on screen to help focus purely on the subject, Reeves is very much a part of the conversation.

While digital film has improved in the intervening years, the arguments haven’t really changed. However, the trends they interviewees have spun out are all coming to roost in pretty much the way they all agreed it would happen, with one unforseen notable exception: COVID-19. In a world currently locked down by a pandemic, cinemas closed everywhere, and 8K TVs already available on shelves, timing has changed. Not only will this event help accelerate digital filming, but it is changing the intended and predominant delivery venue from large screen to small. Dozens of major releases shifted to stream early or stream-only in the last few weeks and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The greatest governor to the advent of digital film has been quality on the big screen… and while that gap has narrowed, the issue is much less noticeable on the small screen.

In many ways, this movie is like a Nova episode on steroids. There is some very basic science and history surrounded by luminaries discussing their views and the implications. But it is the very quality of those views, put forth by those who have set the bar for decades, as well as the floor for the next generation of filmmakers, that makes it so interesting. Even if you’re not a fanatic about cinema, this is an engaging and intriguing conversation to listen in on for 90 or so minutes. Make the time for it.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

[3 stars]

In case it wasn’t obvious, this has a really targeted audience…if you weren’t/aren’t a fan of the original Alien or its sequels on a deep level it won’t likely resonate. Unlike Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, there isn’t as much context setting and obvious industry shift caused by the movie’s subject. That said, after a slightly overwrought opening and set up, it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that led to the iconic movie. In addition, you can see where many of the choices that appear in the later movies grew from.

This isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is solid and, for the intrigued, interesting. Despite knowing a lot about the production, it certainly ferreted out a lot that I didn’t. I don’t know if it increased my appreciation of the movie any more (still one of the best horror films ever), but it provided a framework and some interesting background on writer Dan O’Bannon, who is the primary subject. If you appreciated the original that made Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) a household name and set a whole new bar for such films, give it the 90 minutes it deserves.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

[3 stars]

Have you never heard a song and been transported back to a different time and place? For anyone aware in the 60s-90s (and even a bit more) Linda Ronstadt had songs for all occasions and all styles, blazing a trail for female rockers as she went. And because she was so varied and so successful for so long, it’s easy to forget just how wide a path she trod, and how many songs she recorded that mark out lives with milestones of sound.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are no strangers to documentaries or stories from past eras from Howl to The Celluloid Closet to Lovelace they are constantly seeking corners of pop culture and history to explore and explain, and winning awards while doing so.

This latest offering is told through Ronstadt and many of her friends and collaborators. It’s an interesting, but not exactly gripping, biography. For one, Ronstadt is just a nice person with little, if any, controversy associated with her (or at least little the directors were willing to expose). What does come out is her impact on the industry and those around her, which is likely much bigger than you remembered. Certainly it was for me.

Despite the lack of “oh wow” moments or deep dark secrets, the film pulls you along and, ultimately, tells a story. Honestly, for much of the docu, you’re pretty sure it won’t resolve into a cohesive point or tale, but the music combined with the archival and contemporaneous footage are more than enough to keep you engaged until it all comes into focus.

For anyone who likes music or who simply want a nostalgia trip, this is a solid 90 minutes worth your time. If nothing else, it will reinvigorate or establish some serious respect for this diminutive woman with an outsized voice and confidence to set her own path.

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

[3 stars]

Director Alexandre O. Philippe is a lover and dissector of film, whether it is The People vs George Lucas or Memory: The Origins of Alien, he loves to capture and understand moments that shifted cinema on its axis. Outside of Citizen Kane, which among other things introduced ceilings to sets, Psycho is possibly one of the most pivotal moments in film, it recast how to think about editing, pacing, and storytelling not to mention how we even go to the movies.

However, despite the title (which alludes to the 78 camera angles and 52 edits of the infamous shower scene) this documentary focuses mostly on the business and cultural impact of Hitchcock’s most famous film. The discussion doesf continually circle back to the shower scene that shocked the world of movie-goers (and which was equally as shocking to movie-makers who were suddenly shown action in a way they’d never conceived) but it is less about the technical aspects and more about the emotional. But the fact is, Pyscho changed everything that followed.

A lot of the discussion is overly academic and attempts to ascribe reason and import to choices, much in the way that English professors deconstruct stories. Some of it is credible, other aspects seem more like a critic trying to sound intelligent or important. However, there is no doubt that Hitch was careful in his choices and his control of the screen experience was exacting. And, by the end, you’ll have a much better understanding of how.

You may have enjoyed Psycho for its evil, unexpected, and silly fun, but there is a lot more to it than that. If you ever wondered why movies have start times, or where that screeching knife sound came from, or who was really in that shower, take 90 minutes and get a wealth of information and some insights about the origins of the pop culture that surrounds us now.

Tickled

[3 stars]

David Farrier and Dylan Reeve take us on a strange and funny journey of investigative journalism. It all starts innocently enough for Farrier, but then things go strange. Then stranger. Then downright bizarre. That I found this movie because of its trailer on Hail Satan? should give you a sense of the tone.

If you like odd tales of humanity with a bit of a mystery twist and a real sense of dark humor, you should make time for this true story. Honestly, it’s just best to dive into it without knowing a thing because, well, it’s just that odd.

Apollo 11

[3 stars]

This is less a documentary and more a sort of clear-eyed nostalgia trip. There are no revelations, except perhaps for seeing the dark side footage and the instrumenation alerts during the final lunar descent (more on that if you’re curious and from one of the programmers). However, the clarity of the images, both the remastered and the newly discovered 65mm fim from archives, makes it all immediate in a way that a blurry black & white TV couldn’t in 1969.

By using only archvied, and often concurrent, audio to create the story, director Todd Douglas Miller brings you along the 9 days  in a fascinating 90 minute moving picturebook. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is well constructed to acheive its goals: to relive the event. I imagine it works best for those that grew up watching the Apollo missions rather than those who were weaned on the space shuttle or, more sadly, in the gap that followed the 2011 Atlantis mission. But for anyone who is intrigued by space flight, it is a visual journal of historic proportions worth making time for.

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.