Tag Archives: Documentary

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.

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Step

[3 stars]

Step is an interesting look at the lives of three young women trying to escape poverty. It isn’t, however, a great documentary about how Step made that possible for them, despite the title. Unlike Brooklyn Castle, the story promised in the title of this film never really takes shape. Step isn’t so much the goal and glue that shapes the women as it is simply the crossroads that brings them and the filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz, together to tell their story.

That doesn’t make it uninteresting as a long form piece of journalism, but it is better going in knowing the real focus. In addition, Lipitz had no idea how to film the Step performances so you could see them well either, which was frustrating. Step is best viewed from a little distance so you can see whole team. But this film does a lot of close-ups, odd angles, and unnecessary quick cuts that keep you from ever appreciating what the team put together.

For the stories of the women and to see what a school that takes its charge seriously, to teach and improve the lives of its students, this is worth the viewing time. As a film, it is middling at best. Go in expecting an extended 60 Minutes piece and you’ll be better attuned to the journey you are provided.

Kumaré

[3 stars]

This rather unique documentary starts with a quote: Faith starts as an experiment and ends as an experience. The sentiment, by the 19th century author and priest William Ralph Inge, serves as framework and a way to set expectations around the documentary experiment created by Vikram Gandhi. And the expectations are necessary as the initial setup feels like it could only lead to hurtful disaster. And while lovers of Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Dictator, Brüno) and prank shows may have found that an acceptable outcome, it definitely isn’t what I look for in entertainment, let alone a documentary.

Ghandi’s experiment was put together with a cold disregard for the impact on the subjects of his deception and was entirely focused on the questions he wanted to answer. In other words, it could only have been conceived by a PhD academic. But it is clear early on that the experimentor is, himself, being shaped by his own framework in some way. What we witness over the course of the film is both the fragility and gullibility of people in dual track with a real sense of spirituality.

Ghandi isn’t a brilliant filmmaker. He isn’t even a brilliant academic. However, his willingness to commit to his path to the very end is fascinating. And the results of his efforts are, if not surprising, thought provoking. For an evening of pondering humanity with a wry sense of humor and a bit of self-reflection, it’s worth your time.

Black White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe

[3 stars}

We all know Mapplethorpes (both sides: people, flowers), Worhals, Lichtensteins, Michaelangelos, Calders, Pollacks, Van Gogh, Banksys, and Degas (the list can go on and on), if not by name by familiar sight. But did you ever wonder why you knew them? Why, when these artists were pushing the boundaries of art, who was it that was explaining to the world why it mattered? Or, at least, convinced the world it mattered. In centuries past, it was dynasties like the Medici. In current times it is critics and collectors who have the ear of the museums and media.

The Square attempted to tackle this question a couple years ago in fiction. But this documentary takes on the life and impact of a single man who was a fulcrum point for many artistic movements and shifts in public perception, not to mention culture: Sam Wagstaff. Not a name that comes trippingly to the tongue, but an important one nonetheless.

Learning about Wagstaff’s life and impact are the best parts of James Crump’s documentary, which is otherwise extremely staid, dry, and in its way, scholarly. In other words this 80ish minute walk through history and lives is more like a class lesson than a gripping bit of documentary. That doesn’t make it less interesting, but certainly shrinks its audience to the PBS crowd even if the subject matter might intrigue a wider group.

Despite the title, this really is about Wagstaff, with some passing information on his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe is important to Wagstaff’s story, but the title is a bit misleading. Mapplethorpe was a flashpoint in American art, arts funding, and the government. He was the tipping point that conservatives used to start killing the NEA and NEH and using it, instead, as a propaganda machine for conservative values. The terrified conservatives weren’t completely successful, but you can trace the approach and hate and battle that is going on today between government funding for the arts in a fairly straight line back to the early 80s and artists like Mapplethorpe and Serrano.

This is far from a great documentary, but it is some interesting background and a huge amount of visual representation, video and stills, of the pieces involved. Many people, including Patti Smith, who knew the men well provide first-hand accounts of their lives and interactions. As a lesson in art history it is a nicely condensed overview of Wagstaff and his life and impact, with nods to Mapplethorpe. As a question raised as to the veracity of taste and what drives what is accepted, it is somewhat intriguing. As a movie, even as a first documentary for Crump, it is middling but for its willingness to show and discuss material that is often avoided.

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