Tag Archives: Documentary

The Great American Lie

[3 stars]

While Jennifer Siebel Newsom (Miss Representation) isn’t the greatest documentarian yet, she is a good showperson, with plenty of data, images, and tight editing. We can debate whether that helps or hurts her cause, but I think the reaction will be different depending on your age.

Regardless, The Representation Project, and their aims, are laudable. The issues are very real. And Newsom’s approach to reminding us that America, despite its veneer of success, is so wildly out of step with its global peers is important. Her messages regarding equality and quality of life measures are crafted in ways that could reach all sides of the political spectrum. Too often the conversation is couched as us against them, when, in fact, it is all of us against a common, deplorable problem.

There isn’t much new information on the roots of inequality in this documentary. It’s certainly a good reminder of the issues and a prod to action. It’s also quite depressing, despite its attempts to provide some hope at the end.

And that is part of the problem it has as a movie, to be honest. As with her first docu many years back, the message is a little muddled. She provides a through-line story with an Oakland grade school, but it doesn’t map entirely well with the broader information. And rather than follow any real impact deeply, she peanut-butters the information so we simply get a sense of a lot rather than absorb the enormous impact to individuals or groups in a more impactful way. In trying to swallow the whole beast in a single swallow, the docu only manages to let you taste it while it’s lodged in your mental throat.

All that aside, it is definitely worth reviewing for reminders and solid information to disseminate to others when these subjects come up. And certainly as a touchstone as the next election cycle gains steam, it is a solid reminder of the truth amid the spin.

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Woman in Motion

[3.5 stars]

Nichelle Nichols. The name alone evokes a smile. She is a force of nature and one of the most relentlessly optimistic and gracious people you’ll ever meet. And yes, I say this with a small amount of direct experience.

Director Todd Thompson had a challenge with this story. Talking just about what Nichols did for NASA would be interesting, but would lack context. Adding the context is so wildly off topic that it could distract from the focus of the story. But he managed to walk the line and bring it all together in a way that was, frankly, unexpected as the wandering narrative unspools. In some ways, and I think purposefully, it mirrors Nichols’ own conversational tone and threading.

Thompson did, however, over-produce the docu a bit. It is a little too gimicky and a little too polished/flashy at times. These aspects did distract from the story itself. I imagine not everyone will find that to be the case.

But the story behind how Nichols changed the face of NASA and, in no small way, the world is worth every minute you spend with it. And if you haven’t already caught Hidden Figures, add that on as required follow-up viewing for an even larger context.

At the end, stick around through the credits for a wonderful final look at a facet of Nichols that just didn’t fit into the rest of the story directly. It was a great note to leave the story on and only increases your respect for this powerhouse of energy and effort.

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Ailey

[3 stars]

Through contemporary interviews, much-abused archival footage, and the rehearsal efforts of the American Dance Theatre to honor their founder, Jamila Wignot does her best to introduce us to Alvin Ailey, the man. But the truth is that much of who that man was had never really been captured in public records…or at least none that have been readily shared, if the resulting documentary is to be believed at face value.

His cultural truth, his childhood truth…that is on display throughout and in his choreography. That said, there are a few moments of unguarded, personal truth that let us in. Ailey, the man, even though he avoided most of the worst of segregation and prejudice in his working life, never felt safe to be his true self till very late in his life. At least not in the dance part of his life… which by all accounts was most of what he was.

The resulting total of his story is one that leaves you educated and affected deeply. He was respected and loved by his dancers and the arts world. What is sad is that the quality of a lot of the archival footage is pretty worn as, I’m sure, no one saw the point of capturing and protecting the work of a primarily non-white dance company back in the 50s and 60s.

But the film doesn’t focus on the choreography per se. What Ailey thought of himself, his place in the world, and how he dealt with those pressures, is what Wignot really wants us to understand. Not just to comprehend Ailey, but to understand the culture he came from and to help break that cycle. Find this and support it when you get the chance. Even if you know about Ailey and his work, this likely will expose more than you were aware of about him and the American Dance Theater.

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A Sexplanation

[4 stars]

Sex. We all think about it. We all talk about it. Wanting it. Getting it. Having it. But we almost never really talk about “it.” Not about the specifics. And probably not with anyone of importance even if we do, like our partners, let alone ourselves. Why is that? Really… ask yourself when was the last time you talked about sex, I mean really talked about it? How about the last time you talked about it with your parents? Alex Liu dives into the subject of why this subject make us so uncomfortable. And he does it with heart, hilarity, and honesty.

Liu goes for broke in his first full-length piece (sorry, couldn’t resist) and even takes center stage as he explores our attitudes toward sex and how to become less stressed about it all. But he never loses track of the fact that this is a documentary for everyone, not just himself.

The 90 minute piece is wonderfully executed and is full of experts and lay people. And, yes, he talks to his parents in a way he’s never done before. You will come away from the journey asking yourself some of the same questions Liu began with, but equipped, emboldened, and encouraged to consider doing something about it. And, if nothing else, you’ll laugh a lot while you learn about what’s going on in the field. Because it is, above all, a genuine dive into the subject.

Black Holes: The Edge of All We Know

[3.5 stars]

Not long ago the first picture, literally a photo, of a black hole was released to the public. It was a major milestone in astrophysics and was the culmination of years of work on the part of 100s of scientists. This documentary, in part, covers that journey and several key moments of its efforts. It is a fascinating look inside big science and what it takes to crack the code of the universe.

While interesting, that thread alone might not support a 90 minute docu aimed at the non-scientist. But director Peter Galison adds a complimentary thread that follows a few scientists who are collaborating to solve a huge challenge posited by Stephen Hawking as related to black holes: the memory paradox. Hawking was even working with the trio of brains on the effort before he died in 2018. The interplay of the two stories is a fascinating layer that helps expose the interplay of disciplines and efforts, some of which may not even know of one another.

It’s amazing that Galison got to be present and involved with these disparate groups and had the access to capture it all, not to mention the foresight to try. And now we get a glimpse of the multi-year process and effort that is involved in this rather intriguing film.

UPDATE 25 August, 2021: A new article related to this subject, and possible new solutions. The search goes on…

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We Are From There (Nahnou men hounak)

[3 stars]

This is more a window on the world than it is a full story. But there is a tone poem that the two brothers create with their commentary.  And it is one that will echo for anyone who has ever questioned their choices and place in the world. So, yeah, everyone.

The documentary follows Milad and Jamil from Syria to, ultimately, different countries in Europe. Both these young men felt they had nothing in Syria to hold them, that it would, in fact, hold them back. But they constantly reflect upon their childhood there, recalling and leaning on the memories.

The third perspective of this story is their cousin Wissam, who is also the writer and director of this film. Wissam stayed in Syria but remained closely in touch with his cousins. He provides the bridge between them and their past. And, in doing so, becomes part of the tale rather than just an impartial third eye. And, in this case, much like in Stories We Tell, it’s a necessary bit of glue.

Overall, this isn’t a very polished docu, but it has a fascinating quality and honesty. Even as it raises more questions than answers, it somehow manages to feel complete. And, despite hailing from one of the most war-torn areas of the world, it doesn’t dwell on those aspects, but on rather more universal emotions, without ignoring the roots of it all.

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Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution

[4 stars]

Much like the history it parallels, writer and co-director James Lebrecht’s story of his childhood grows into a larger tale thanks to his summer at Camp Jened and the people he met. Never heard of Jened? You’re not alone, and yet it became the nexus around which an international movement developed. In many ways, it’s a camp that, in its final evolution, could have only existed in the early 70s; run by hippies, devoid of judgement, and full of the joy and love for those around them. The power of that environment ripples out to this day.

But this docu tracks not only the civil rights movement for those with disabilities of all kinds, but also lays out the value of truly seeing someone and accepting them for who they are. Using archival footage and new interviews, you’re asked to communicate with camp members on their terms. It is done without apology and without rushing. And the impact of that choice is impressive, particularly if you’ve never known anyone with similar challenges; it will shift your perspective.

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My Octopus Teacher

[4 stars]

I am so late to this one, I’m embarrassed. It was in my queue for ages, but got lost. If you still haven’t seen this beautifully filmed tale of a man lost, found, and freed…all thanks to his obsession with an octopus, then make the time. You will not be sorry.

Now up for an Oscar, I must admit that this docu is one of the odder I may have ever seen. Not because of the subject, but because the intended focus is utterly orthogonal to the central subject. It certainly films the year-long life of young octopus and its, for lack of a better word, friendship with nature writer and filmmaker Craig Foster. But the story is more about Foster and his self-professed reawakening from the experience.

Foster’s is battling a personal crisis and isolation at the beginning¬† of the story. It’s that journey, through the experience of meeting the octopus and joining it daily in its world, about which the story flows. Though how much he learns or took away from the experience is something I am still discussing today with others who’ve seen the film.

It is telling that Foster didn’t direct and write this documentary, but allowed fellow artists Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed to tell the story, though they never appear on screen.¬†Without that distance, there would have been a lack of honesty in the final result.

Frankly, the film just has to be experienced…and experienced on your own terms to interpret. I’ve spent days thinking about it afterwards, struggling to write it up and realized that there was no definitive way to do so. It is a must-see film. What you take from it is going to be based on your own experience and state of mind. Certainly, pandemic viewing has impacted that filter.

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Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

[3 stars]

The better documentaries tell a story. Not just by showing the life and events of their subject, but also crafting a path through that information in a way that makes a point. Sometimes that point is solely the director’s, but when done well it sums up the subject’s experience. Eight Days a Week is a bit of both, by necessity.

There is so much to cover about the Beatles that director Ron Howard (Solo: A Star Wars Story ) chose to focus solely on the touring years. We see the band’s rise and the insanity of their tours, which were the largest ever conceived at that time, booking the first stadium tours in modern music history (I think, technically, the Greeks got there first long ago). Through photos, film, audio recordings, and lots of wonderful performances, we see what brings the Fab Four to their final touring stop: the roof of their studios in Jan 1969.

That well-known, semi-impromptu performance has been shown many times and in many ways. Through the frame of Howard’s edits, it becomes a happy and heart-breaking farewell without bringing in all the other stressors that history has happily posited and recorded. Howard doesn’t ignore the rest of the Beatles’ story, but there isn’t lots of background or discussion of the internal tensions that have been raked over many times before. But by framing the movie around the tours, their reaction to them, and those specific challenges, Howard does manage a slightly different view of the band than I’ve seen in other docus. It doesn’t present the whole picture, but it does illuminate some new corners of the band’s heyday.

If you have any interest in the band, their music, or the period, this is worth your time. But if you want a full picture of the story, you’ll have to watch additional documentaries and profiles to fill in the gaps and view all the facets.

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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.

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