Tag Archives: Documentary

American Swing

[2.75 stars]

While focused on the infamous rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, this docu is really about Larry Levenson, the man behind the bedsheet. Because of that, the historical and psychological aspects of the phenomenon end up ultimately getting sidebarred. The story is eventually overtaken by Levenson’s tale rather than truly examining the sex club’s impact on society in general and NYC in particular.

It’s unlikely you never heard of Plato’s if you’re over 30. But you may not know its history or even it’s reality, though the myths continue to circulate. What American Swing does is try to put a human face to it all. It isn’t entirely without judgement, but it tries to stay balanced within the framework it constructs. There are some interesting interviews, some by recognized names but also many just regular members. As a documentary, I’m not sure what story it has to tell. I get the impression that when Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman set out to expand on Hart’s article, they didn’t realize they had no more than a history report until part way through production. Than they shifted to a focus on Levenson to provide it an arc and some structure.

As a bit of history, American Swing is interesting. Not perfect and not particularly insightful, but it is a glimpse into a part of NYC’s past for those who were only vaguely aware of the club.

American Swing Poster

Kiss the Ground

[4 stars]

You probably think you know all about carbon sequestration and climate change. And, since you think you do (like me), you likely had also just about given up hope. Even Wood Harrelson (Zombieland: Double Tap) admits as much in his opening comments to this fascinating documentary.

We’re wrong. The next 90 minutes walk you through not only what we can do, but how easy it could be with just a few changes. I actually ended this documentary with a sense of hope, which I haven’t done after a climate change docu in years. Kiss the Ground simply lays out the path and advantages (yes, you can make more money this way) of rebuilding our soil. Sure it goes through how we got where we are; that’s necessary to understand where the resistance is coming from. It also suggests individual choice changes you can make to help the process along.

Make time for this. Be re-energized about the future in a way you probably haven’t in ages. Then make a few changes and push your local and federal leaders to do so as well.

Kiss the Ground Poster

Gather

[3 stars]

Food is life.

Food is culture.

Food is survival.

These are the tenants that drive the indigenous peoples in this story to reclaim the past and create a future for the Lakota and Apache and other remaining nations across the country.

Sanjay Rawal’s (Food Chain) documentary follows three people as they nurse back to strength aspects of native life for themselves and those around them. These include three very different areas, but all with the same concerns and approach: crops, salmon, and buffalo.

The documentary puts into harsh relief the histories that have nearly destroyed indigenous Americans; highlighting how food was weaponized by settlers and the government.

Rawal’s sure hand makes the story as hopeful as it is angering and disturbing. He manages to keep a neutral and honest eye, despite a clear point of view. And he provides some calls to action if you want to get involved.

But whether you want to explore current politics and issues the stories raise, it is a coverage of history you probably weren’t ever told. And it’s a story, particularly in our current times and discussions around reparations and the strains between people across the country, that needs to be heard.

Gather Poster

McQueen

[3.5 stars]

In his relatively short life, Alexander McQueen was a force in fashion that could not be ignored. Love him or hate him, he was a master of design and presentation, not to mention a conscious provocateur.

This docu traces his rise and impact through interviews and tons of archival footage. It is a highly personal view of events, with very little in the way of objective exploration. McQueen would probably agree with that approach, but it makes the film, for all its beauty and inventiveness in presentation, less informative and more a reflection on the man.

And McQueen is a fascinating and tragic character; a driven artist and a damaged man. More than anything, you are left with the impression that perhaps the inevitable tragedy was avoidable if anyone had challenged McQueen’s ability to control the room and provided intervention.

Ultimately, there isn’t much to glean about the man in the fashion world, other than his c.v. and footage of his shows, as there is about the man behind the curtain. If you are a fan or curious it is certainly worth it for that. The new footage is a visual feast, nicely balancing a lot of the lower-fi archival footage. But, frustratingly, it does lose its sense of time. Being more commentary than academic, it provides few year markers to help you place the action (unless, of course, you know his career so well you can place the year by the collection).

For a peek behind the curtain of both the industry and to see the unguarded moments of the man, this is a wonderful excursion. If you want to know more about McQueen’s explicit impacts and efforts, I’m afraid you’re on your own.

McQueen Poster

Wait for Your Laugh

[4 stars]

Rose Marie was a fixture in comedy for close to 90 years in the industry. She was one of the original megastars of vaudeville and radio, and transitioned to TV and film without missing a beat. But that’s what she accomplished, not who she was. She was also a fascinating character with a life you couldn’t invent and be believed.

This documentary by Jason Wise and partner Christina Wise is funny, well-paced, and a great overview of the entertainment industry as it evolved. And for those that only grew up knowing Rose Marie as the sharp-tongued, gravelly voiced actor from Hollywood Squares, it will probably be revelatory.

But beyond the factual, this is also a wonderful tale of love, endurance, and persistence. It’s a reminder that life is constant change and effort…but doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it along the way. When you need a break from all the craziness, this is a wonderful distraction.

All In: The Fight for Democracy

[5 stars]

The single, most important film this year so far. Whether you grew up during these fights or not. Whether you think you know all about it or not. Whether you want to hear the message or not:

See it. Get Angry. Vote.

Learn from it. Hear it. Vote.

Basically: VOTE

In case it isn’t obvious,  directors Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, with the help of Jack Youngelson’s script, created a compelling presentation of Stacey Abrams gubernatorial run, while providing a historical and contextual framework for the history of voting in America. It’s a call to action that cannot be denied.

Honestly, I wept and gritted my teeth openly…and I knew most of it going in.

An odd assortment for many tastes

Here’s a potpourri of material for all kinds of tastes. Though, admittedly, not all are easy to get your hands on.

Mysteries:

Ultraviolet
Not the movie (which isn’t so good), nor the vampire series (which isn’t so bad), but a Polish mystery series. It’s not quite a cozy series, but it isn’t a deeply effective procedural. The mysteries drive it along, but it’s just as much about the band of misfits solving crimes as it is the criminals. They also take a nice sharp left at the end of first season and into the second that shows they were working hard to keep it going. And while the second series isn’t a complete cliff-hanger, we’re still waiting to hear if it is renewed to continue the tale. Even so, there is enough closure that it is entertaining and gets better as it goes along.

Van Der Walk
A 2020 reboot of the 1970’s series, with Marc Warren (Revengers Tragedy, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) in the title role. The mysteries are interesting, but not brilliant. It’s the characters and the interplay that keep it intriguing.

McDonald & Dodds
Another amusing detective odd couple story, with a few overwrought characters thrown in. Dodds, played by the wonderful character actor Jason Watkins, is the absolute center of these stories…all by being quiet and steady in the midst of chaos. Paired with relative newcomer Tala Gouveia, the two navigate a strained relationship into something quite a bit more interesting. Were it not for their Super, James Murray (6 Underground), being written like an outright fool, the show could really fly. As it is, the two episode inaugural series is fun, and I look forward to its return, but I hope they get the writing more under control.

YA Science Fiction: 

The Cul de Sac
This is a far from perfect Kiwi YA fantasy/sci-fi adventure, but with a nicely evolving mystery and characters. It’s still written for tweens, so don’t expect brilliant plotting and complex emotions, but do expect some amusing dialogue. The first two series built on each other nicely. I’m hoping the third series will wrap it all up nicely, though I suspect it won’t entirely. It will likely be a year before it is available to stream or buy as they seem to be being trickled out after their wrap in NZ a couple of years back. As a short distraction, at 6 ep. seasons/22 min. each, it’s entertaining.

Documentary:

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Do you know who Freestyle Love Supreme are? Well, this will tell you something of them, but not really showcase their talents. It’s a docu best seen by fans of the improvisational rap group or, individually, like Lin Mañuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns). It is really more a tale of how  show comes into being, with some insights into what it’s like to be a performing theatre creative in NYC.

The Go-Go’s
On the other hand, this music documentary is really very good and engaging. I wouldn’t have thought that the rise, and fall, and rise of the Go-Go’s would be able to keep my attention. But Alison Ellwood’s documentary is cleverly edited, and and the band are very open about their journey. In addition, Ellwood puts it all in great, historical context, following these young women and their influences and influence. This is a story about young women as well as about the music industry. It also is surprisingly reflective of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains–or, perhaps, not so surprising, though that movie was completed before The Go-Go’s even hit their peak.

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary

[3 stars]

If you loved Galaxy Quest, this is a special gift for you. It isn’t full of fascinating, little known tidbits, nor revelatory insights, it is simply a glorious celebration of a movie that has won the hearts of so many.

If you’ve yet to see Galaxy Quest, go forth now and do so. Not so that you can watch this docu and enjoy it (though not a bad reason), but because it is just so nearly perfect it shouldn’t be missed.

If you didn’t like Galaxy Quest, well, we probably don’t have much in common to discuss anyway.

I remember when Galaxy Quest was released. Frankly, the ad campaign had so turned me off, I had no interest. However, our neighbor and friend saw it and called us immediately after exiting the theater and said we had to see it…right now. He came, picked us up and he went to see it again with us. And, though we don’t always agree on flicks or humor, he was so right about this one.

Now, as docus go, this isn’t brilliant and I don’t really need to see it again, thus the rating. But I definitely enjoyed it and recommend it to anyone who meets the right criteria above.

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary Poster

 

I’m A Porn Star

[3 stars]

Through interviews, and copious amounts of often graphic footage, writer/director Charlie David introduces us to a range of adult film/web performers, gay and straight, and delves into their lives and drives. Thanks to the subject matter, this docu also makes a wonderful adjunct to Circus of Books.

The result is, admittedly, a bit raw in many respects. However, you can see promise in David’s early attempt to share a story through non-fiction; especially his sense of humor and whimsy. On the weaker side, the footage is often repetitive and reused; but the stories themselves are probably not what you expect, which makes the movie a bit stronger. And, unlike Rocco, these are not self-congratulatory or even celebratory stories, generally. Not that any of these performers are embarrassed by their choices, but neither have they tried to build cults around their bodies. Instead, they are focused on making a living and enjoying life. And, seven years after its release, some of the men have also achieved their goals and exited the industry.

As interesting as some of the conversations are, it’s David’s abbreviated history that introduces the film that really sets up the stories and makes it more relevant. In addition, his ability to keep the subject entertaining without turning it into porn on its own (graphic yes, but not porn) that normalizes it for critical viewing. Though, to be fair, David would likely argue that wouldn’t have been a big deal if it had crossed the line in any case.

If you ever wondered about the people on the other side of the lens, both performers and crew, this is a brief visit with some insight. It isn’t a great movie, but it does show off David’s budding abilities.

I'm a Porn Star Poster

For My Father’s Kingdom

[3 stars]

Documentarians create films to expose truths, answer questions, and to understand the world. Lately, a number of these began as attempts to understand their own families, but exposed even broader and more universal stories than they originally imagined. Stories We Tell comes to mind, or Circus of Books.

Such is the case here for Vea Mafile’o. This story, inspired by her desire to understand her, if not estranged, certainly distant father and his actions, becomes a fascinating look at Tongan culture and church. As a window into both, it becomes a compelling story for those of us watching. This isn’t a society that is often depicted, even if there are many universals in the details as it unfolds. The story emerges despite some challenging choices in how it is put together, but it does still emerge. As an initial feature for both Mafile’o and co-director Jeremiah Tauamiti, their willingness to be honest and non-judgemental shows some solid promise for their projects ahead.

This is also an opportunity to see an outfit committed to capturing and promoting the Pacific islander life from the inside. In an age where society is trying to become so much more woke, outfits like Mafile’o’s  Malosi Pictures and her colleagues are indispensable. For that matter, just capturing and preserving the current cultures of the area as we homogenize is just as important.