Tag Archives: Documentary

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.

Brooklyn Castle

[4 stars]

Nine years ago, when this was primarily filmed, we were in the heart of the Great Recession and NY public school IS 318 was struggling to keep its funding. The story was one of struggle and unexpected excellence; a reminder that circumstances do not make the person, but can certainly affect their lives. But that is the undercurrent. The real story is watching these young mental athletes find their footing and ability as they try to make their way in the world, and it is riveting.

I expect that the school and documentarian Katie Dellamaggiore never envisioned the attack on education, and particularly for the poor, would remain under such siege in the heart of the recovery these 9 years later. And yet, here we are with a movie that resonates in very interesting ways long after its completion.

Brooklyn Castle

Three Identical Strangers

[4.5 stars]

Tim Wardle’s matryoshka-like tale of three brothers separated at birth is fascinating. Even if you remember the story from when it happened, you don’t know the whole of it. Wardle’s control, revealing it in layers, takes you down a rabbit hole; it creates an experience as close to how the brothers themselves experienced it as you could hope for. The structure is a wonderful example of form and function, and yes, showmanship.

There is much to take away from this documentary. Some of it is wonderful and some of it less so. To discuss any of it would be to diminish the experience for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say, make time for this. Support it. And keep an eye on Wardle. He may have lucked out with subject matter on this one, but he still had to have the eye to find it and the skill to present it as powerfully as he did, while still being utterly fair to the facts.

Three Identical Strangers

American Animals

[3 stars]

It’s easy to dismiss this as a story that depicts the basic truism “criminals are stupid” because, well, they certainly were in this case. However, that would be selling this quasi-documentary short. Bart Layton wrote and directed something that wasn’t so much unique as it is impressively seamless as it bounces between the real subjects of this story and the actors and situations depicting their tale from 13 years previous. It is a wonderful melding, raising re-enactment to an impressive level that maintains truth and also becomes a movie on its own.

Part of that success is how well Layton cast the younger criminals. Evan Peters (Elvis & Nixon), Blake Jenner (The Edge of Seventeen), and Jared Abrahamson (Travelers) each manage to embody their real-life counterparts and deliver nicely layered characters. Most importantly, you can see them growing into these men. But while Barry Keoghan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) delivers a performance that, under other circumstances, would have been great, I had great difficulty seeing him grow up to be the real Spencer Reinhard. This isn’t just a matter of knowing the story and people involved, Reinhard and his cohorts deliver interviews and color commentary throughout the film…we see them and get to know them, which makes the younger portrayals all that more important. Around them are a solid ensemble making it all work. There are also some specific supporting bits from Udo Kier (Downsizing)  and Ann Dowd (Collateral Beauty) that stood out.

But ultimately, as engaging and suspenseful as the story is, the real question is what is this movie about? Certainly it chronicles the events and, to a degree, the lives of those involved. It raises some interesting questions about motive and growing up as a Millennial. It encourages us to wonder what we would do in these situations. But what it doesn’t do is provide satisfactory answers or a sense of conclusion. There is no indication that those involved even had answers to those questions or ideas. And that, perhaps, is part of Layton’s point in making American Animals, but I’m not sure that’s enough to justify having made the film, however well crafted it is.

Still, for the ride and to experience the beautiful craft that Layton employs, this movie was worth my time. I wanted more, but I can also acknowledge the filmmaker’s vision.

American Animals

Kedi

[3 (or 5) stars]

Is this just cat porn? Well, yes, to a point. But it is also an insight into the philosophy and soul of Istanbul and people generally. Following the various, and credited, furry characters around provides an incredible view into the society and sociology of the animals. We get a day-in-the-life view of the animals and their various free-range human companions.

The result is a heck of a first film by Ceyda Torun. Pulling together a documentary that feels like a story from 180 hours of raw footage, gained by chasing cats around the city, was impressive. Which isn’t to oversell this heart-warming tale. The result, while effective, is really just a step or two above kitten fail videos on You Tube, which could explain why it was financed by You Tube Red. But it does show talent and vision. I’d love to see what she and her crew could do with a serious subject.

But Torun and her partners aren’t unaware of the light nature of their story. They took their efforts seriously, but also recognize its place in the pantheon of documentaries. The disc has some great making of, extra footage, and commentaries. But is also has one commentary by the cats themselves (which is probably exactly what you think it is).

All in all, it is interesting for those who like nature programs and a must-see for feline enthusiasts (and thus the split star rating). It is also a nice tour of parts of Istanbul as well.

Kedi

Rocco

[3 stars]

Who is Rocco Siffredi? Well, if you don’t know (and I admit I didn’t), I’ll let his 30+ years and 512 film titles speak for themselves. When you see how his films are made, you’ll understand how he can have so many. I even expect the number is under-reported. But in short, Rocco is an Italian porn star, and this movie is his explanation, apologia, exposé, farewell note… one or more of those things, or something more. He is a legend bidding goodbye to his fans and an industry that reveres him.

You get the sense that this is the documentary counterpart to Nymphomaniac or, perhaps, the nicer side of Boogie Nights. Rocco has no illusions about what he does, even if his reasons are murky at best, even to himself.

At the same time, this is a different view and facet of the porn world than I’ve seen in the past. One that purports to be of choice rather than exploitation, if the performers are to be believed. If I sound a little dubious, read on…so were the filmmakers. It is also an oddly personal film, while remaining slightly detached.

The film is explicit, at times, which should be no surprise. It has to be in order to document this tale. The language and situations are also sure to be uncomfortable for a large group of viewers. Interestingly, I don’t think that is intended. Rocco and his colleagues would say they are just being honest and why should that make anyone uncomfortable? They know no other way to live.

From a cinephile point of view, this is a fascinating documentary. It is handled with a real attempt at being objective and respectful, but not unaware of its place in the action that is occurring. The filmmakers know that the camera is skewing responses. They even take time to hold, uncomfortably long in some cases, on people they feel are perhaps not being honest with themselves or the interviewers. You can see the facade as well as the moments of honesty.

Should you make time for this? Well, first you should check your comfort level with movies like Love, Short Bus, The Dreamers, or the others already mentioned. If discussions and depictions of explicit sex are not in your comfort zone, just run away. If you are OK with that, then make sure you are also fine with rather intense moments of domination (however seemingly consensual). If you’re still around then consider that Rocco is a story told well and with some nice subtlety and heart. How you parse the information you are provided by both the men and the women could probably fill a doctoral program in psychology, sociology, and sexology. Rocco himself, however, only asks that you make a 100 minute foray in that world and listen to his story.