Tag Archives: Documentary

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

[3.5 stars]

Yes, here I am trying to take my mind off of the goings on in the world and with the current state of politics by watching a docu on climate change. More the fool me. In truth, it wasn’t so much a choice as what showed up, but that’s another story for another day.

As it turns out, this follow-on to Al Gore’s 2006 An Inconvenient Truth, while full of depressing realities, is also bolstered by some sense of hope. And, yes, that includes taking the current administration into account. In fact, the movie more or less revolves around the 2015 Paris COP21 meeting that delivered the biggest step toward controlling and reversing climate change to date…despite 45’s pulling the US out of it as one of the first acts of his presidency.

This documentary continues Gore’s journey from his first movie as an advocate, showing us the mechanisms behind the rousing, and terrifying, speeches. It takes us through how he has been amplifying that message and the path forward. And it shows us a man of near-limitless optimism that we can solve the problem together if we can overcome the hypocrisy and corrupt influences that have death-grips on the fossil fuel economy. Honestly, he’ll make you believe, but not without many grindings of your teeth.

This movie is already two years old. And, let’s face it, much has happened. Not only have policies changed, but the EPA and other watchdog agencies and laws have been actively dismantled. But this is also an election year, and with a solid win, none of it has to be permanent, though sure as hell a lot of damage has been done. I want to remain with Gore and be optimistic. What’s the alternative? We can, as they say, “vote the bums out.” We can insist on logic and science to be drivers of policy and law. As the docu shows, this isn’t really a partisan divide…we just have to stop allowing certain industries from behaving like robber barons and hold accountable any who support them.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power Poster

Nightwatching / Rembrandt’s J’accuse

[3 stars]

Peter Greenaway (Eisenstein in Guanajuato) is one of the most singular and visionary directors in film. You may not like the results all the time, but he manipulates film like a canvas. This is because he is, at heart, a painter. His movies always reflect that, and often examine the role of art in society as well.

Greenaway became obsessed with The Night Watch, a painting crammed with symbology and unique in its presentation for the mid-1600s. Nightwatching  tackles the creative process behind the choices and the society it was part of…which leads to the exposure of a power struggle and a murder.

It all sounds very exciting and intriguing. And with Martin Freeman (Black Panther) in the role of Rembrandt, you are probably hoping for a wonderful jaunt down historical lane, filled with sex, intrigue, and mystery. Well, there is sex, and it is a living Rembrandt portrait in design, but it isn’t the most engaging film. The story is rather hard to follow, and the presentational style Greenaway adopts for many of his movies, that almost theatrical setting, distances you from getting too close. The fourth wall is often broken as well, making it as much lecture/explanation as it is story. The movie ends up feeling more like dramatic recreation rather than exposure of Rembrandt’s personality, creative process, and life.

But even Greenaway seemed to know that, and thus the companion documentary he released the following year: Rembrandt’s J’Accuse!

The docu attacks the same story, but in non-fiction style and utilizing some of Nightwatching’s footage. The result isn’t brilliant…while well organized it is overly produced and pompous. Greenaway, as narrator, rather than educating is more than a little condescending. The research and explanations are fascinating, however, which is what keeps you going through it. If you’ve never studied art history, it is likely to be a bit fast and overloaded. If you are at least a little familiar with the period of art and the kinds of symbology artists employed, it is likely a little more digestible.

Frankly, I’d skip Nightwatching and just watch J’Accuse, if you have any interest in these subjects or just want to learn a bit about one of the world’s most famous artists. It is a great reminder of just how conscious the visual arts are. Everything is there for a reason, even if we don’t realize it most of the time. And the tale behind The Night Watch is complicated and interesting. The presentation of artist as vigilante with brushes isn’t new in the world, but rarely are the indictments so meaningful and so packed.

Nightwatching Rembrandt's J'Accuse...!

The Story of Plastic

[3 stars]

I have to admit, as versed as I am in much of the environmental movement, I learned some things from this docu. None of them will help me sleep better at night either.

Activist director Deia Schlosberg is passionate about her subject and cause. By taking us into the root business drivers for the plastic industry, she provides both context and a disheartening sense of reality. All the things we thought we knew, all the things we thought we are doing and could do, are wrong and lies.

It would be easy to come to the end of this nearly two hours despondent and without direction, but that isn’t Schlosberg’s intent. The experience ends on a call to action and links and organizations to get involved with or donate to. While I could certainly argue the movie is a bit longer than it needs to be, often repeating itself or lingering on shots, it certainly enlightened me on aspects of politics and misrepresentations that had evaded me (and I’m a cynic to start with).

It may not be the best documentary you’ll see, but its information and message are both critical and essential and it may even shift your view and choices. I know I can’t even look at my garbage and buying habits the same way anymore.

Lambert & Stamp

[3.5 stars]

This is another odd documentary that isn’t exactly focused on what you expect. Lambert and Stamp were the guys behind The Who. They didn’t pull together the band, but they were the guiding force, for good and ill, behind their rise, direction, and, ultimately in many ways, their demise. But The Who are merely the foil to discuss the men and their work. At least that is the intent (and the title backs that up).

But, let’s face it, we’re talking about The Who… Townshend and Daltrey figure heavily in the present-day interviews, and there is a ton of performance footage. Of course the band and the men draw focus despite all efforts by the first-time-feature director, James D. Cooper.

What really sets this movie apart is that Lambert and Stamp had always intended a movie of their efforts managing the band. Mind you, they thought that would be a couple years before the band (whichever band they picked) would flame out and they could then focus on their purported first love: film. But as fate would have it, they ended up with The Who, one of the longer lasting forces in modern rock, which has ended up outlasting even them. But that plan and intent means is that there is a lot of high-quality footage and interviews from the very beginning of The Who’s journey with their producers/managers rather than the type of  “found footage” you’re stuck with 40 years down the pike looking back.

Cooper did an amazing job sifting all these years of archival footage and new interviews to pull together a story. It may not have been the story Lambert and Stamp had envisioned when they started their efforts, but it is still a fascinating one. And, with The Who as the backdrop for it all, it tends to be interesting generally.

Circus of Books

[4 stars]

Rachel Mason’s (The Lives of Hamilton Fish) documentary of her family’s infamous bookstore is a wonderful journey of discovery. What begins as a purported history and examination of the store and its place in the culture, shifts to become a tale of family. Much like Stories We Tell, Mason was feeling her way along a story she hadn’t defined, but which slowly revealed itself as she did her interviews and sifted her footage.

In  some ways that approach makes this film a little oddly structured. You can feel the focus shift as it goes along, but it leaves the first quarter of the story feeling a little uneven until the real tale starts to become obvious. But, while getting there, Mason’s overview of the politics, period, and people is still worthwhile and interesting. And, to be honest, it plays in and against the story she does end up telling.

The story of Circus of Books is filled with humor, heart, and revelation…and one I do highly recommend.

What We Left Behind: Star Trek DS9

[3.5 stars]

Deep Space 9 was a very divisive show in the Trek universe, but I’ve always had a place in my heart for it despite any of its flaws. I’ve even sold fiction in the universe. It was something different for Trek and was the first of the spin-offs to take on politics and religion in long form. But it was far from perfect and its creation was controversial coming on the heels of Babylon 5.

All of that aside, exec producer and writer Ira Steven Behr’s look back at the series, what it did, what it didn’t do, and how it might be carried forward is an interesting dive into the world left behind 20 years ago. He and the fellow writers, producers, crew, and actors are as open as they are, occasionally, deluded about what they created. But what is clear is that the show was a family and the intent, achieved or not, was genuine and gutsy.

One of the things that Behr did to help set this docu apart from so many others is that he explores not only the origins and challenges with the show, but he pulls together some of the top writers to break an initial episode for the the launch of a new season. And, actually, it is an intriguing story that will make you wistful for what might have been.

Be warned, the opening and closing of the movie is a bit odd. Clearly done with a genre convention group in mind (who else would appreciate this level of filking?). It creates an odd frame for the story. Some will appreciate it, others won’t…just enjoy it for what it is: a little extra gift.

If you had any interest in the original show or simply want to understand more about it, this is actually a pretty good examination. Also, watch through the full credits as all kinds of extra stuff is going on through them after the first minute. Sadly, it was also completed before the loss of Rene Auberjonois this past December, though Behr gives him his moment, if not a final tribute.

What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Side by Side

[4 stars]

It is the rare documentary that manages to keep me utterly intrigued. And Side by Side, while not the most perfect docu, pulls together such a wealth of top voices in the industry to discuss the advent of digital film vs. celluloid emulsion that it held my attention throughout. OK, it did drag a bit on the wrap up, but it was still fascinating.

Christopher Kenneally put this film together over a couple years, releasing it in 2012 and then extended versions of it a couple years later. He chose as his narrator Keanu Reeves (Replicas). One amusing effect of the time span is watching Reeves’s hair and beard change from scene to scene. Where most docus these days avoid having the interviewer present or visible on screen to help focus purely on the subject, Reeves is very much a part of the conversation.

While digital film has improved in the intervening years, the arguments haven’t really changed. However, the trends they interviewees have spun out are all coming to roost in pretty much the way they all agreed it would happen, with one unforseen notable exception: COVID-19. In a world currently locked down by a pandemic, cinemas closed everywhere, and 8K TVs already available on shelves, timing has changed. Not only will this event help accelerate digital filming, but it is changing the intended and predominant delivery venue from large screen to small. Dozens of major releases shifted to stream early or stream-only in the last few weeks and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. The greatest governor to the advent of digital film has been quality on the big screen… and while that gap has narrowed, the issue is much less noticeable on the small screen.

In many ways, this movie is like a Nova episode on steroids. There is some very basic science and history surrounded by luminaries discussing their views and the implications. But it is the very quality of those views, put forth by those who have set the bar for decades, as well as the floor for the next generation of filmmakers, that makes it so interesting. Even if you’re not a fanatic about cinema, this is an engaging and intriguing conversation to listen in on for 90 or so minutes. Make the time for it.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

[3 stars]

In case it wasn’t obvious, this has a really targeted audience…if you weren’t/aren’t a fan of the original Alien or its sequels on a deep level it won’t likely resonate. Unlike Alexandre O. Philippe’s previous 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene, there isn’t as much context setting and obvious industry shift caused by the movie’s subject. That said, after a slightly overwrought opening and set up, it’s an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the creative process that led to the iconic movie. In addition, you can see where many of the choices that appear in the later movies grew from.

This isn’t a brilliant documentary, but it is solid and, for the intrigued, interesting. Despite knowing a lot about the production, it certainly ferreted out a lot that I didn’t. I don’t know if it increased my appreciation of the movie any more (still one of the best horror films ever), but it provided a framework and some interesting background on writer Dan O’Bannon, who is the primary subject. If you appreciated the original that made Ridley Scott (Alien: Covenant) a household name and set a whole new bar for such films, give it the 90 minutes it deserves.

Memory: The Origins of Alien

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

[3 stars]

Have you never heard a song and been transported back to a different time and place? For anyone aware in the 60s-90s (and even a bit more) Linda Ronstadt had songs for all occasions and all styles, blazing a trail for female rockers as she went. And because she was so varied and so successful for so long, it’s easy to forget just how wide a path she trod, and how many songs she recorded that mark out lives with milestones of sound.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are no strangers to documentaries or stories from past eras from Howl to The Celluloid Closet to Lovelace they are constantly seeking corners of pop culture and history to explore and explain, and winning awards while doing so.

This latest offering is told through Ronstadt and many of her friends and collaborators. It’s an interesting, but not exactly gripping, biography. For one, Ronstadt is just a nice person with little, if any, controversy associated with her (or at least little the directors were willing to expose). What does come out is her impact on the industry and those around her, which is likely much bigger than you remembered. Certainly it was for me.

Despite the lack of “oh wow” moments or deep dark secrets, the film pulls you along and, ultimately, tells a story. Honestly, for much of the docu, you’re pretty sure it won’t resolve into a cohesive point or tale, but the music combined with the archival and contemporaneous footage are more than enough to keep you engaged until it all comes into focus.

For anyone who likes music or who simply want a nostalgia trip, this is a solid 90 minutes worth your time. If nothing else, it will reinvigorate or establish some serious respect for this diminutive woman with an outsized voice and confidence to set her own path.

78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene

[3 stars]

Director Alexandre O. Philippe is a lover and dissector of film, whether it is The People vs George Lucas or Memory: The Origins of Alien, he loves to capture and understand moments that shifted cinema on its axis. Outside of Citizen Kane, which among other things introduced ceilings to sets, Psycho is possibly one of the most pivotal moments in film, it recast how to think about editing, pacing, and storytelling not to mention how we even go to the movies.

However, despite the title (which alludes to the 78 camera angles and 52 edits of the infamous shower scene) this documentary focuses mostly on the business and cultural impact of Hitchcock’s most famous film. The discussion doesf continually circle back to the shower scene that shocked the world of movie-goers (and which was equally as shocking to movie-makers who were suddenly shown action in a way they’d never conceived) but it is less about the technical aspects and more about the emotional. But the fact is, Pyscho changed everything that followed.

A lot of the discussion is overly academic and attempts to ascribe reason and import to choices, much in the way that English professors deconstruct stories. Some of it is credible, other aspects seem more like a critic trying to sound intelligent or important. However, there is no doubt that Hitch was careful in his choices and his control of the screen experience was exacting. And, by the end, you’ll have a much better understanding of how.

You may have enjoyed Psycho for its evil, unexpected, and silly fun, but there is a lot more to it than that. If you ever wondered why movies have start times, or where that screeching knife sound came from, or who was really in that shower, take 90 minutes and get a wealth of information and some insights about the origins of the pop culture that surrounds us now.