Tag Archives: Documentary

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.

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Obit. (x2)

[3.5 stars]

Making a story about life out of writing about death seems contradictory, but Vanessa Gould’s long-form documentary about the New York Times obituary desk manages just that. It is also a fascinating look behind a section of the paper you may not have put a lot of thought behind.

Our tour is constructed of interviews with the small crew of writers as well as an amusing look at the news morgue and its denizens.  Through these Gould gives us a picture of the mechanics and the care brought to the often dry and sometimes entertaining encapsulations of life that grace the paper daily. It is a look back at an old craft as well as evolution of the craft in modern times.

It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is an interesting one, and crafted to carry you through. To be fair, it would be hard, without forcing it, to create a story around the subject, so it is more a behind-the-scenes and philosophical discussion. But whatever you think of obituaries or your interest in them, you will never notice them again in the same way.

As a bonus, while searching for this documentary I unexpectedly came across a clever short by the same name and did a double feature. Unlike the documentary, this is a short drama, but it makes a reflective coda to the evening.  Director Brian Tolle is much better known for his effects work on major blockbusters, but this short drama shows his eye for structure and character, handling Reddy’s script deftly and guiding George Maguire through a complex character over the 10 minutes. Tolle is a bit less sure with Sandra Fish (Sense8), but she has moments. Add this one to your list when you’ve a small gap of time to fill. It is fine with or without the double feature, but it definitely added something to see them together.

Obit

Free Solo

[4 stars]

How many people spend 8 years waking up every morning thinking: I’d like to risk my life climbing that sheer rock face without a rope?Well, Alex Honnold did, planning and then executing a nearly inhuman feat. You end the journey with him feeling entirely inadequate…and also full of possibility.

Through phenomenal photography and honest story-telling, you spend 90 minutes on the edge of your seat, riveted and tense. Frankly, it is both exhilarating and exhausting. But you leave with an appreciation of the skills needed to accomplish such a feat and the kind of mentality it takes to even consider it.

Of course the story may be centered on the scaling of El Capitan, but it is the “why” of it all that adds the emotional tension to the very real physical fear Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s documentary manages to elicit. They layer the physical challenge with Honnold’s personal and emotional challenges in life. We never quite get a full picture of of him, past or present, but much is teased. We are left with an incomplete metaphor for Honnold’s efforts as they reflect in his life, but it adds to the moment the entire film is focused on. Had this just been about the climb on the final day, it may have been pretty and intriguing, but it would have revealed nothing about the man, the sport, nor, to be a bit broad, the human condition.

It is clear that it takes a particular kind of mindset and approach to life to free solo at the level Honnold and his colleagues do. The film doesn’t exactly celebrate nor judge that mindset, but it definitely attempts to present it with genuine affection and wonder. It is beautifully and amazingly filmed. Without distracting from the story, the documentary even becomes part of the story itself. And, yes, it is most definitely worth your time. It definitely earned its Oscar.

Kusama: Infinity

[3.5 stars]

Like Cutie and the Boxer, this is a documentary about art, but it is much more about the politics of art and the artist’s life. Kusama has had a fascinating and challenging life. All of which has led to her impetus for creation, but not necessarily a penchant for happiness. She is also probably one of the more important artists of the modern movement that you may not have heard of, or at the least, understood her place in art history. (I know I didn’t before seeing this portrait of her life.)

Kusama’s art is challenging and, often as not, may leave you scratching your head. But the results of her efforts and ideas had profound impact on art you do know. I imagine that is a large part of why Heather Lenz was drawn to this story as her first directing feature. It is epic in scope and also a disturbing example sexism and racism, and it is has demonstrable historical importance. Though, it should be noted that that Kusama is still alive and producing and having sell-out shows around the globe.

As a movie, it is oddly constructed, but it also didn’t have an obvious path for the telling. Lenz jumps back and forth in Kusama’s life to provide context and a sense of her influences. It makes for some jarring moments, but told purely chronologically it would have been less interesting. Given Kusama’s art, the more gestalt approach to her story is probably appropriate. And, at less than 90 minutes, it isn’t a large investment for a glimpse inside an fascinating mind and a clearer understanding of many aspects of the modern art movement.

Marwencol

[3 stars]

Before there was Welcome to Marwen, there was this  2010 documentary that brought the real Mark Hogancamp’s story to the world beyond his gallery events and photos.

There are two aspects to discuss here. The first is the documentary itself on its own merits and the other is how that translated into the recent movie. I purposefully didn’t watch this docu before the adaptation to avoid mental frisson; it seemed easier to take on the truth later rather than untangle it while watching the fiction. It was the right choice as the fiction reveals things in a deliberate way and aspects would have been spoiled had I known going in. So, if you haven’t seen either, start with Welcome to Marwen and then learn more. And, yes, I recommend both for your time.

As a first full-length documentary subject for director Jeff Malmberg, Hogancamp’s tale was a gem of a find in terms of uniqueness. The story is unlike anything else. However, his completed result is a little less crafted and smooth in narration than it might have been. There is a great deal of interesting information and revelation, but it all feels rather fragmented in the way it is told. The story comes across as a bucket of interesting facts rather than a complete narrative. While there are times avoiding putting together that thread can be a good thing for a documentary, in this case it was more jarring than revealatory. I will say that he did manage to maintain an objective distance from the information. In the end, however, I didn’t feel that I got to know Hogancamp very well, but only just got a flavor of his experience and struggles, with a sense of hope and direction of where he was going.

In the fictionalization, Zemeckis took the bones of this information and sewed them together into a story. Some of it is clearly pure fiction; the presentation of Hogancamp is more a distillation of the indicators of what we see in this documentary rather than the factual truth. But the core of the movie is very much obviously drawn from what we see in this documentary. Zemeckis simply finds a story to pull it all together in a satisfying way. It is also interesting to see which shots he directly took from the documentary and how he evolved, in particular, the Belgian witch, Deja, to provide a spine for Hogancamp’s struggles and a message for the audience.

The two movies together create a wonderful lab for learning about adaptation. The actual facts and recordings are not always the best way to get a point across…or, for that matter, the truth. In many ways, the fictional movie manages to surface more of the struggles and realities of Hogancamp’s life and the world than the documentary, even if some of it is patently changed and made-up. But each of these films provide different insights and work well together to give a more complete picture of Marwen(col) as well as a peek inside each of our own dark mental meanderings that get us through every day.

Love, Gilda

[3 stars]

I couldn’t help thinking, through a good part of this biography, that Love, Gilda is exactly the kind of story Radner would have hated being told about herself. Ultimately, I changed my mind on that point, but she is very clear about how she wants to interact with the public for much of her career, and this kind of tell-all (or a lot) definitely was not her style. At least not when she started.

Much as you’d expect from the title, Lisa Dapolito has created a love letter to Radner from Radner’s own audio tapes, interviews, home movies, and notebooks. With some additional commentary by friends and family, we get a sense of what drove Radner and what, at times, broke her. And, most importantly, also what brought her great joy. It is, by the nature of its telling, also a love letter from Radner to her audience, but that aspect isn’t as clear at first.

Radner was a force in comedy and part of the modern female comedienne movement, even if unwittingly. She was magnetic and intense and, along with the original Saturday Night Live cast, part of an evolution in comedy and comedy history that has defined the industry for over 40 years.  Her life was complex and challenging and a story in its own right. If you’ve read her autobiography you may know a lot of the tale already, but this is now in her own voice and with archival footage to illustrate and explain.

However, while Dapolito did an impressive job of interweaving the various collections of media and molding their presentation into an interesting documentary, it isn’t a very emotionally compelling one. The result feels almost clinical at times, even if intriguing. I can’t quite put my finger on the reason for that, honestly. Perhaps it was the pacing or the reliance on frequently having the audience read Radner’s own writing that causes the movie to become more like research than a journey. But the result is that it is empty of some of the emotional impact I would have expected. It is still worth checking out, especially if you like Radner’s work or knew only a little about her.  She was an important figure that influenced many of the big female comedy stars today…some of which are in the documentary to declare just that.

So, give Gilda another 90 minutes of your time for a visit, or just come to get to know her a little better. However, to truly get the message that Radner and Dapolito want to tell you, stay through the credits for the final tag. It’s worth the moment.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood

[3.5 stars]

Before you dive into this semi-salacious documentary, be aware that if you want to protect the fantasy version of Hollywood sold by the magazines and interviews, don’t watch this film.

That said, this many years on you’ve probably hear the rumors and the whispers about the stars from the early and middle years of Hollywood. At the center of the truth for a lot them was Scotty Bowers. As a companion to his memoir, Full Service, this documentary looks at the man behind the stories in a frank and, at times, explicit way.

Scotty Bowers appears to have no boundaries and fewer regrets. The stories he relates are both fascinating and sad, both for him and for the people involved. It is a reminder of what happens in the world when people aren’t allowed to be themselves. It is also a reminder that the picture of the world a lot of people hold up as the ideal, that mythical perfect America of the 40s and 50s, is built of utter falsehoods and hypocrites.

This isn’t a typical docu. There isn’t a real thread holding it all together, except a tenuous one around Bowers’ life and motivations. It is more exposè than narrative. But it is an interesting story that peels back layer upon layer, often in uncompromising ways. Identifying how you feel about both Bowers’ life and the fact that he is revealing all, outing the dead, and at least one of the living (watch for that), is far from simple moral math.

Director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emporer) has captured glaringly honest, often shocking conversations with Bowers that, over the course of 90 minutes, provide answers, hope…or just simply some interesting yellow press, depending on who you are, what you know, and how you think. If you’re easily offended or don’t really want to know what your icons were up to, walk away and embrace the fantasy. If you’re at all curious about at least one aspect of the truth and why silence is never the answer, give it a spin. It isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is a fascinating one.

They Shall Not Grow Old

[5 stars]

WWI has always felt distant to contemporary audiences. The old, jerky, mis-timed black & white footage is almost comic despite its subject. The photos are often horrific, but drained of impact for anyone who grew up with color photography and TV. Now imagine tackling the subject like a Ken Burns documentary on steroids, and with a much expanded f/x budget, and you get a sense of They Shall Not Grow Old.

Through enhancements and brilliant sound design, Peter Jackson (The Hobbit) helps you experience just a bit of the sense of the battles in the trenches. It is a very clever and disturbing trip, often hard to watch, but also fascinating. It brings to life and humanizes the meatgrinder that destroyed over a million lives and shredded a countryside. Jackson delivers a visceral vision of WWI unlike any you’ve ever seen. It is a perfect, sober recognition of its centenary.

Using the recorded interviews, photos, and archival footage, sprinkled with some very clever magic dust, we are taken full circle in the story. It begins with enlistment and carries us through the return home and the struggles, triumphs, and the odd reality of the last war that was fought with a sense of adventure…the first war that was heavily documented in media, even if that was filtered to the public. No war was the same after The Great War (and you could argue that WWII was just a continuation of the first). Technology had changed the tactics and repercussions. Medicine had more people surviving with debilitating injuries. Politics had gone global in a way never before seen. And people still had to catch up with all of those realities.

The journey is, by necessity, compact. It focuses on a single battle site as a proxy for a four+ year engagement, but it makes its point. Listening to the men who served is a revelation in perspective. Seeing the footage, even when some of the effects look a little creepy, is surprisingly impactful. You leave the viewing both aware of the horror and amazed at the resilience of the people involved. It isn’t comprehensive, but it is revealatory and presented with a true love of the people who were there, whether they survived or not.

I am not a huge fan of documentaries about war. They are rarely neutral in their conversation and presentation. And, far too often, they bend toward the jingoistic. Certainly, this movie has its attitude crafted by the editing choices. But it also manages to walk the line and retain the cultural sense of the time while providing enough of the facts to let us ponder our own conclusions. This really is a must watch 95 minutes. It will bring to life an era that has always felt distant, despite its fallout in politics, industry, immigration, and global life that has direct-line effects on our current lives.