Category Archives: Documentary

“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” – 32nd Annual MIFF – 2015

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Writer / Director:  Brett Morgen

With:  Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love

IMDb Logline:  The authorized documentary on late Guitar/lead singer Kurt Cobain from his early days in Aberdeen Washington to his success and downfall with Grunge band Nirvana.

Pros:

  1. Personal videos from Kurt’s childhood and marriage to Courtney Love
  2. Animation to dramatize certain episodes of his life
  3. Use of his personal notes to show Kurt’s creative process
  4. Choice to play Nirvana music on children’s musical instruments while showing early family videos
  5. Present day Courtney Love interviews

Cons:

  1. Lack of present day Dave Grohl interviews
  2. Follow-up with the girlfriend who supported him before he was famous on how she reacted to his success, and if he ever said thank you.
  3. His suicide is told as a title card at the end of the documentary with no commentary  from Love or his family

Review:  Kurt Cobain:  Montage of Heck does an excellent job showcasing Kurt Cobain’s talent and creativity, but ultimately misses out on getting key information from important people in his life.  Simple questions such as if he seeked mental help once he was able to afford it after his success; how soon after Frances was born did he get back on heroin;  did Courtney think he would ever go through with killing himself are not asked nor shown.

Rating = C

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“Being Evel” – 32nd Annual MIFF – 2015

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Director:  Daniel Judge

Writers:  Davis Coombe and Daniel Judge

With:  Evel Knievel, Johnny Knoxville, George Hamilton

IMDb Logline:  The real story behind the myth of American icon Robert ‘Evel’ Knievel and his legacy.

Pros:

  1. Definite must for Evel Knievel fans
  2. Never before seen footage from the Snake River Canyon Jump
  3. ABC Wide World of Sports sportscaster interviews
  4. 70s setting, 70s characters, 70s fashions, and only in the 70s stories
  5. Evel Knievel stunt cycle toy

Cons:  

  1. Not enough information from the wilderness years after Evel’s fall from grace and before his redemption

Review:  Though not groundbreaking in terms of documentary style, Being Evel more than delivers on letting you know who Robert “Evel” Knievel was and his importance on American culture.  You don’t have to be a fan of the man or the times to appreciate the story being told.  What you walk away with is an appreciation for a driven and ultimately flawed man, who initially created and then became a prisoner of a persona that he could–in the end–not live up to.

Rating = A-

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Click on image to view Sundance Spotlight


“Finding Vivian Maier” (2013) – Review

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Writers / Directors:  John Maloof and Charlie Siskel

With:  Vivian Maier

IMDb Logline:  A documentary on the late Vivian Maier, a nanny whose previously unknown cache of 100,000 photographs earned her a posthumous reputation as one the most accomplished street photographers.

Pros:

  1. John Maloof”s compulsive need to find Vivian Maier and his detective process is infectious.
  2. Beautiful photography
  3. The interesting character that is Vivian Maier

Cons:

  1. Would have liked to know the following:  How she died?  Did she continue making photos in her old age?  How did the three boxes of negatives that started the search for Vivian Maier end up for auction, and how did the auction house know she was the photographer?  Why did the brothers she nanny’d take care of her at the end of her life?

Review:  The two great characters in Finding Vivian Maier are Vivian and filmmaker John Maloof who took us on this obsessive compulsive journey.  The two are in many ways soul mates.  Maloof”s journey through Vivian’s things, interviews with former clients & charges, and even her voice in recordings brings to life a great unknown talent, and an equally great private detective.

Grade = A-

Click on image to view trailer

Click on image to view trailer


“Kidnapped for Christ” (2014) – Review – MGLFF

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Director:  Kate Logan

Writers:  Kate Logan and Yada Zamora

With:  David, Ty, and Kate Logan

IMDb Summary:  A young evangelical filmmaker is granted unprecedented access inside a controversial Christian behavior modification program for teens, where she discovers shocking secrets and young students that change her life.

Pros:  

  1. Incredible access inside the camp
  2. Numerous story arcs developing at the same time
  3. Fully developed story with no loose ends

Cons:  

  1. Minimal; inexperience of the director sometimes shows

Review:  A multilayered documentary where friendly relationships turn antagonistic, friends become enemies, people become damaged and need to be heeled; and a documentary that clearly shows how much hurt someone can cause when they truly believe they are doing good.

Grade = A

Click on image to view trailer

Click on image to view trailer


“Jodorowsky’s Dune” (2014) – Review

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Director:  Frank Pavich

With:  Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, and Brontis Jordowsky

IMDb Log Line:  The story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptaion of the seminal science fiction novel.

Pros:

  1. Interviews with truly visionary eccentrics
  2. Incredible artwork by Moebius, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss
  3. The Dune storyboard book
  4. Jodorowsky’s reaction to watching David Lynch’s Dune

Cons:

  1. Though Jodorowsky is obviously emotional towards all the work done toward his Dune, that emotion does not translate to the audience except in a few scenes
  2. Only for cineofiles

Review:  

Grade = C+

Click on Image to view Trailer

Click on Image to view Trailer


“The Act of Killing” (2013) – Review

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Director: Joshua Oppenheimer

With: Anwar Congo, Herman Koto, Adi Zulkadry, and “Animal”

From the literal mouth of a derelict roadside attraction in the shape of a fish, dancing ladies emerge in single file arms raised high followed my a fat man in drag, and then Anwar Congo. Cut to the same group in the jungle with a waterfall in the background as a “director” yells instructions. After “cut” is yelled the women drop their arms and wrap themselves for warmth.

Next we are in an urban park. As the camera pulls back the basic facts and history are laid-out. In 1965 there was a military coup in Indonesia and the civilian government was ousted. In order to maintain control and root out the ethnic Chinese (i.e. communists) the government gave free rein to local gangster to interrogate and kill “suspects”. In this ethnic cleansing approximately one million people were killed. One of these gangsters was Anwar Congo.

The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, convinced not only Anwar but also his other cohorts to film their experiences and create a movie. Throughout The Act of Killing we witness the making-of this fictitious movie while Anwar and company tell their tales.

The most repugnant of the group is “animal”–labeled as such for my inability to correctly identify him from the IMDb listing. He is a cross between Paulie ‘Walnuts’ of The Sopranosand Tommy of Goodfellas, but lacking any humor or even one redeeming quality. We witness him shakedown Chinese shop keepers in the market without a care he is being filmed. Later in the documentary when they dramatize a raid carried out on a village that left many dead and the town burned to the ground, “animal” remembers fondly how they raped the women and particularly enjoyed the fourteen year-olds. After the scene has been shot and a female actor is visibly traumatized and child actors cannot stop crying, “animal” looks on from a lounge chair with a nonchalant attitude. His inhumanity made worse to me by the fact of how it affected me. At that particular moment I imagined him strung-up like a cow at a slaughter-house with a technician slicing his gut and being disgorged. This mental image should have disturbed me, but in actuality I drew slight pleasure from the thought it was happening to him. I realized I lowered myself to his level.

The most intelligent of the group and a contemporary of Anwar’s is Adi Zulkadry. Adi of all those featured appears to be the one who has distanced himself most from the past. At one point Anwar asks why he never returns his calls. Anwar also asks if he is plagued by nightmares like he is from his past. Amazingly Adi says no. He is also the only one that sees the mistake of creating the movie they are making. He admits that they have all perpetuated the lie–now forty years old–that the Chinese and communists were cruel, but they in fact were the cruel ones and much more ruthless. He warns this movie will reveal the truth. When confronted by Oppenheimer that his actions are punishable as war crimes as defined by the Geneva Convention, he retorts “‘war crimes’ are defined by winners. I am a winner.” He also goes onto say, “the Geneva Convention exists today, but perhaps tomorrow it is the Jakarta Convention.” And unfortunately his words are true. During this back and forth with Oppenheimer I was reminded of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War–his military commander admitting to him after the fire bombing of Japan during WWII that if the United States lost the war they would be hanged as “war criminals”.

Herman Koto is a combination of ‘Big Pussy’ and Bobby ‘Bacala’ from The Sopranos, having the cruelty and menace of one and the lack of drive of the other. It is he who is the fat man in drag at the beginning of the documentary. At one point he is convinced to run for Parliament. Clean shaved, cut hair, and dressed properly he makes a proper looking candidate. But when pressed to reveal why he chose to run he lays out in detail how he plans to extort large kickbacks from construction companies and businesses once in office by abusing his position.

Lastly is Anwar Congo, the ‘Uncle Jr.’ of the group. Anwar is obviously past his prime, but is respected by the group for his previous exploits. While being interviewed on a talk show to explain the movie he is making and recounting his past atrocities, the production staff in the control both wonder how many people he has killed? around 1,000 someone answers.

Of this motley group Anwar is the most affected by his past. We witness his sleepless nights as he stairs at the ceiling. In a bizarre way he uses the making of the film as an obscene therapy. He films reenactments of his nightmares; he casts himself as the murdered victims; he films his own beheading; and in the end is overcome with fear and exhaustion after another scene where is interrogated and garroted. When speaking to Oppenheimer about that particular experience he reveals he now knows what his victims felt and experienced their fear. Oppenheimer corrects him by saying he doesn’t. He reminds Anwar was aware everything was an act, but his victims knew they were going to die. By the end of the documentary Anwar is no longer spry but a deservedly frail old man.

The weakness in The Act of Killing is in the pacing. These men are alien to us and we have nothing in common with them. Since it is so difficult for the audience to connect with the subject, the first thirty minutes of the documentary drags. The strength in The Act of Killing lies in witnessing these true “hearts of darkness”; in being outraged at a government that allows these men to exist, glorify them, and act with impunity.

Oppenheimer also allowed a cruel thing to occur. By giving these men a voice in the fallacy of the movie they thought they were making, he allowed unfortunate regular citizens to have to be a part of their sham–people who may have been related to or known of people who were killed during this time.

Grade = B+

P.S. The final credits rolled with a large number of “Anonymous” listed for the cast & crew.

P.P.S. Ruth below has informed me Joshua Oppenheimer’s original intent was to interview the survivors of the atrocities. But they feared being interviewed and actually suggested to him to interview the perpetrators.

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Click on image to view trailer


“Blackfish” (2013) – Review

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Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Writers: Gabriela Cowperthwaite and Eli B. Despres

With: Tilikum

Blackfish opens with the grainy footage of Dawn Brancheau being dragged underwater by the orca Tilikum as recorded 911 calls play in voice over. The attack occurred on February 24th, 2010, and Dawn did not survive it.

Cut to an interview of a fisherman who in the 70s caught Orcas for seaquariums. The process is shown through animation and archival footage of how they are coralled into a netted area, and the young calves seperated from the pod. Two astonishing facts occurred during this attack. First, the pod learned from past experience the fisherman were only interested in their young. The pod actually broke into two at an inlet with the adult males leading the boats away from the females & calves. It was only because the fisherman had a plane in the sky that they were alerted and went after the secondary pod. And second, after the calf was separated from the pod, the remaining Orcas stayed observing and wailing at the boats while the crew prepared the calf for transport. The fisherman today has complete remorse for his past actions, and views it as the worst thing he has ever done in his life.

From here we start to learn the history of Tilikum. It is one of always being the low-man on the totem pole of the matriarchial Orca society. Never completely fitting in and constantly being harassed by the more dominate females. His first seaquarium was Sealand of the Pacific in Canada. There, all the whales were kept in the dark at night in spaces only slighlty larger than themselves, and performed tricks with trainers that remained outside of the water. After one performence a trainer’s foot slipped into the tank and was grabbed by an orca. The trainer would not survive the encounter. The orca in question was Tilikum; identified by witnesses because of his collapsed dorcal fin. Soon after, the owner of the park in shock from the death closed it and sold the whales. Tilikum was purchased by Sea World and sent to Orlando.

In Orlando he would continue to be harassed by other whales and be involved in more incidents and two additional deaths. Tlikum would not be the only orca in captivity involved in attacks and deaths.

Due to Sea World’s refusal to be involved with the documentary, the story is a decidedly skewed. But based on the evidence presented, even with their involvement it would still be a one-sided affair.

The filmmaker, Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is a former Sea World trainer and has first hand experience with the whales and Sea World. She conducts interviews with other former trainers as well as experts on orcas to present her case: that orcas do not belong in captivity; and those in captivity are a danger to themselves, other orcas, and the trainers they are in contact with.

The documentary builds over time with more and more graphic instances of orca attacks on trainers coupled with more and more Sea World silence & misinformation. All the trainers interviewed were never informed by Sea World of the large number of attacks that have occurred between orca and trainer. Sea World misinforms their tour guides to tell visitors that the average life-span of an orca in captivity is longer than in the wild, when in fact the opposite is true. Worse, when attacks become public the party line is always human (i.e. trainer) error is the culprit, and not the unpredicablty of the whales.

The horror of Dawn’s death is made clear when the autopsy report is read. The tragedy of her death is made worse when Sea World blames her for her own death and their is no one their to defend her.

The missing element from Blackfish are interviews with Dawn’s family. What were they initially told by Sea World? the police? experts? Unfortunately the family declined to be interviewed; so for the time being we do not know.

In the end, you will leave Blackfish looking at orcas differently, and leave thinking twice about visiting Sea World or any other seaquarium. Also, I left remembering a line Gunther Gebel-Williams once said during a performance with the lions at Ringley Brothers, “remember, these animals are trained not tamed.”

Grade = A-

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Click on image to view trailer.


“Somm” (2012) – Review

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Click on image for funny video about my knowledge of wine.

Writer/Director: Jason Wise

With: Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, Dlynn Proctor, Dustin Wilson, and Fred Dame

Somm is the nickname for Sommelier. And Somm is about four men preparing and taking the Sommelier Masters exam. It is an exam over three days in three parts: tasting, theory, and service.

Individuals taking the exam must have encyclopedic knowledge of wine; its history, the regions, the variations, the wineries, the climate and how it affects the vines, why some years are better than other, etc., etc., etc.. They must also know how to pair the wines with appropriate foods and why, as well as handle difficult services and customers with “skill, elegance and diplomacy.” And most importantly, after their blind tastings–three reds and three whites–they must be able to “identify, where appropriate, grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wine tasted.”

The individuals we are introduced to are Ian Cauble, Brian McClintic, Dlynn Proctor, and Dustin Wilson. None of them are from privilege, but all of them share a passion for wine. Ian Cauble is the obsessive compulsive of the group; constantly studying, reviewing, and tasting; as the test day approaches he grows more and more neurotic. Brian McClintic is the former athlete who likes the challenge of the exam; of the group he is the most relaxed and grounded. Dlynn Proctor from an early age saw the well dressed man pouring and explaining the wine at a restaurant, and knew from that day what he wanted to be. Dustin has taken the exam in the past and aims to succeed where he previously failed.

Though initially all four work as a support group, the core becomes Ian, Brian and Dustin with Dlynn coming in and out. Brian and Dustin go so far as moving in with each other even though they are both married. As for the wives and fiancés, they know they have lost their men until they have passed the exam; accepting their temporary place behind wine and the other men in the group.

The success of Somm and why it does not become a pompous bore–because in the end all we really are talking about is “fermented grape juice” in the words of Brian McClintic–are these guys. They’re charming, they’re neurotic, they’re overwhelmed, they’re frantic, bust most of all they are identifiable and relatable. During a practice tasting Ian becomes convinced that two of the white wines where incorrectly labeled. Even though the tutoring Master Somm confirms that they are in fact correct, Ian still believes they have been missed labeled. On his way home in his car, Ian still goes on about how he is right and they are wrong. I know that feeling; I have been Ian in that situation. And in the end I have almost always been wrong. There isn’t a person who has a passion for something that cannot identify with any of these men and where they are coming from.

Jason Wise, the director, maintained a good pace throughout the documentary and built tension to the climax of the exam. Wise also has an eye for shot framing and editing. Near the end after the results of the exam are known, there is a shot that clearly illustrates the agony & ecstasy of passing or failing that Brian McClintic verbalized earlier in the documentary. He also does an excellent job of giving us the history and importance of wine in our world culture–the only miracle Mary, the mother of Jesus, ever asked of him was to make wine for a wedding.

You do not have to be a fan of wine to be a fan of this documentary. In the end this is not about wine, but about the achieving of an almost insurmountable goal. By giving us good people to route for, Wise gave us a good documentary to watch.

Grade = B

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PS If you are interested in reading what the Masters Exam entails, click here.


“Far Out Isn’t Far Enough” (2012) – Review

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Writer/Director: Brad Bernstein

With: Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendack, and Jules Pfeiffer

Tomi Ungerer is an illustrator/artist citizen of the world. He was born in the Alsace region of France in 1931, went to middle school and began high school during Nazi occupation, and immigrated to the United States in 1956. There he found work as an illustrator for magazines and advertising agencies, and found success as a children’s book writer.

But unlike other children’s book writers, Tomi created work in other worlds: anti-war and civil-rights posters; books of erotic illustrations. Then one day his worlds collided. At a children’s book industry conference he was questioned about his erotica. Put on the defensive he got angry. And when he got angry he lost control. Afterwards his books were banned and he was blacklisted. He left the United States for Canada and later to Ireland. His work forgotten.

Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story tells the story of man trying to find where he fits in. A person trying to find his identity. During the German occupation his schooling was a perpetual brainwashing into Nazi indoctrination where French language, history, and culture was banned. After the liberation all things German were banned and burned. His native French now compromised with a German accent brought him ridicule from his fellow countrymen. Later in life, the land of opportunity that initially brought him success abandoned him.

The director, Brad Bernstein, chose to begin and end the documentary with the same interview. Whereas in the beginning we could not understand Ungerer’s accent & cadence, by the end we knew what he was saying. The documentary functions in much the same way. In the beginning we do not know where this particular chain-smoking & drinking artist is coming from, by the end we do.

Bernstein also chose to animate Tomi’s illustrations; giving already powerful and vivid images a little more life. What stands out from this is the how easily Ungerer tells a story with so few strokes of a pen and color of ink. Even at an early age the drawings he created as a child in occupied France convey a sense of urgency and terror for the situation he and his family were in. It is through this early work that we most easily connect with him.

But Ungerer is a difficult person to connect with. His artist mentality creates a wall between us and him in his adult life. The lack of interviews with his wife and one of his daughters–they chose to maintain their privacy–leaves a void in our ability to know him. The one daughter who agreed to speak only slightly illuminates the man.

It is only through interviews with Sendack and Pfeiffer do we realize his importance and impact in the children’s book world. Before him all modern children’s book characters were pretty, all stories happy, everything was colorful and cute. After him it was possible for snakes and vultures to be protagonists, for the books to be black & white with only some punches of color.

Though Ungerer is a fascinating interview with interesting things to say, the documentary does overstay its welcome. It could have been ten minutes shorter, with a few less interviews with the curator of the Tomi Ungerer Museum in Strasbourg and a little less time spent in Nova Scotia.

In the end though, watching Far Out Isn’t Far Enough is time well spent if you are a fan of illustration and the power it can convey. Though unaware and/or ignorant of his work before, I am very much a fan of it now.

Grade = B-

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.


“Dirty Wars” (2013) – Review

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Director: Rick Rowley

Writers: Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill

With: Jeremy Scahill

The tagline for Dirty Wars is “A secret army. A war without end. A journalist determined to uncover the truth.” The secret army is the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). The war without end is the war on terror. The journalist determined to uncover the truth is Jeremy Hill.

Jeremy Scahill is a war correspondent who works for The Nation magazine and is the author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He has reported from conflict zones in the former Yugoslav countries, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc. He is most definitely courageous in the pursuit of a story and the truth.

The story he pursues in Dirty Wars starts in a small town in a corner of Afghanistan. There one night US soldiers fly in and perform a raid that leaves numerous Afghanis dead–men, women, and children. In researching those deaths, Scahill learns the assailants removed the bullets from the bodies of the dead and any other evidence of their involvement. When it comes out that Americans were in fact responsible he discovers a video of a US Admiral who came to the town to offer apologies.

But who was this Admiral whose name appeared in no records of military personnel in the area? Later Scahill would learn the identity of the man and the organization he runs, JSOC. An organization setup to “find, fix, and finish” their targets. An organization that was established in 1980 and reports directly to the President of the United States. An organization whose remit and authority has grown significantly with each passing year during the war on terror.

Though Dirty Wars is a documentary, its look is very cinematic–too much so. The color correcting and post production work employed makes you feel as if you are viewing a feature and not a documentary. The obvious danger Scahill is in in Somalia and under fire in war zones is neutered because you feel you are watching a well shot and lit movie.

Also, the story is off-putting because of its heavy handedness. Instead of letting the facts of the story affect the audience, Scahill and the director, Rick Rowley, always seem to show a young child or senior citizen after every US raid (i.e. the US is always bad and the attacked always innocent). The documentary comes across as a propaganda piece that actually causes the opposite reaction. Instead of making you think about what the US is doing across the globe in the name of security, you actually are proud of what they US is accomplishing.  These specific events the documentarians are showing come across as just collateral damage the filmmakers are exploiting.

Dirty Wars should have been a documentary that appealed to me. I am a fiscally conservative socially liberal registered Republican who voted for Kerry over Bush only because I was against the President’s use of the “enemy combatant” status on captives or suspected terrorists.  I am a person who is absolutely against the ordered killing of American citizens in foreign lands even if they are known terrorist and actively plotting against the country without due process. And with all this, I found Dirty Wars to be too skewed to an agenda it wants to beat you over the head with.

Grade = C-

Click on image to view trailer.

Click on image to view trailer.