Movie Review: Vernon, Florida (1981) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “V” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first V documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleVernon, Florida
Release Date: October 8, 1981
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: Errol Morris Films

This documentary focuses on several residents of a Western Florida town that was had a population of 885 in 1980 when it was filmed and is considerably smaller now. There’s no narration, interview questions, or anything else to link the movie together. It’s simply a series of intercut monologues of people talking about what interests them. And in most cases these seem to be the type who love to spin a yarn and are happy to have a new audience, even if it’s a silent cameraman.

A turkey hunter shares tales of his greatest hunts and admiration for the “gobblers.” An old man shows off the unusual wild animals he keeps at his home. A pastor preaches on the word “therefore.” Andthe town’s only cop goes into detail of the daily drudgery of stopping speeding cars, before finally relating about the time someone shot at him through the window of his cruiser. Reviews of this film invariably refer to these people as eccentric, but I find them rather ordinary. The strength of this film is that it shows the human spirit in their unique but ordinary enthusiasms.

What I do find unsettling about this movie is that of the dozen or so people who speak, they’re almost entirely white men. One woman speaks in tandem with her husband. Children are absent. People of color are not seen at all. I don’t know what to make of this film, but if you’re going to call it Vernon, Florida, I’d expect a more representative cross-section of that town

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

You’ll know a thing or two about turkey hunting, I’m sure.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

If you really want to watch a documentary with a cast of eccentrics, see Cane Toads: An Unnatural History.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ***


Movie Review: Unrest (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “U” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “U” documentary I’ve reviewed.

Release Date: 22 September 2017
Director: Jennifer Brea
Production Company: Shella Films

Jennifer Brea was leading an ordinary, active life when an illness left her with a crippling condition she could not recover from. Doctors told her that her condition was psychological but through connecting with people online she has myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), also commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

Brea made this film which she directed from her own bed to document her experience with ME. She also interviews other people with ME and their families via Skype. The film combines these interviews with photos and home movies of the subjects in their healthier days.

With no medical cure available, Brea also shows the variety of remedies people with ME share with the community. These range from foods and dietary habits to relocating to drier climates. The film also depicts the worldwide #MillionsMissing protest in which empty shoes were left in public places to represent the 25% of people with ME who are bedridden.

This is an important but difficult movie to watch. I found myself angry. Angry at how the human body can betray people like Brea. Angry at the arrogance or ignorance of those in the medical community that allows them to justify not helping.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

If you weren’t aware of ME/CFS already, this movie is a primer on the disease. Millions of people worldwide have ME, more than Multiple Sclerosis. The vast majority are women which is the most likely reason for the stigma against people with ME. The film shows that historically women with similar symptoms were diagnosed with “hysteria” or “hypochondria.” ME also receives minimal attention in fundraising circles compared with other illnesses.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Visit #MEAction, a site for ME activism and resources for people with the disease.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Tower (2016) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “T” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “T” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Trekkies.

Release Date: March 13, 2016
Director: Keith Maitland
Production Company: Go-Valley

Tower pushes the limits of documentary film. It recreates the events of the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings using a hyper realistic form of animation with the words of survivors spoken by actors. It’s effective at putting the audience into the chaos of the massacre and showing the youth of most of the people involved. There are some neat effects such as animation of the KTBX radio mobile unit overlaid over archival film of the University of Texas campus. There are also cinematic asides such as depictions of visions a man may have seen as suffered from heat stroke or a women’s Day-Glo daydream about her romance with her now murdered boyfriend.

The woman, Claire Wilson, is one of the key figures in the movie. An 18-year-old student and 8 months pregnant, Wilson was the first person shot from the tower, killing her baby. Her boyfriend Thomas Frederick Eckman was killed instantly by the next shot. Wilson lay on the broiling pavement for nearly 90 minutes wondering if she would live. In one of the many acts of bravery that day, another student Rita Star Pattern ran into the line of fire and lay by Wilson, keeping her conscious and her spirits up. In one of the more stunning moments of the film as Wilson wonders if she would live the animation dissolves to reveal a very much alive Claire Wilson in her 60s.

Another key figure is John “Artly” Fox, a student who heard news of the shooting and not realizing the severity of what was happening, went to campus to check it out. Fox found himself in the midst of the terror, and with a friend would eventually run out to carry Wilson to safety. Other subjects include the police officers and curiously a bookstore employee who reach the tower and kill the shooter.

This was not the first mass shooting in US history, and not even the first school shooting, but in 1966 they was definitely not a public awareness of this kind of random violence in public places. This is evident in the ad hoc approach that first responders made in response to the shooting. The aftermath was also very different from what we’d expect today. There was no candlelight ceremony, no memorial service, no monument on the campus until 2006. In fact, the university was only closed for one day. The survivors did not speak of the event at all. Remarkably, Wilson and Fox did not meet again until the making of this movie, and they discuss how therapeutic it is for them to speak of the shooting.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This documentary vividly recreates the terror of a mass shooting and depicts the long lasting trauma of crimes that have become all too familiar to us in the present day.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read: Guns by Stephen King is a concise case for the necessary regulation of firearms in the United States, a call that’s fallen on deaf ears since at least 1966.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ****

#AtoZChallenge Bonus: What to Watch Next

As I’ve noted through the A-to-Z challenge, my choices of documentaries to watch and review was largely informed by what was already in my Netflix queue with a little research to fill in the letters of the alphabet that were missing.  Because of my reliance on streaming services, there are a number of documentaries I’d like to watch that just weren’t available.  I also was limited to one per letter of the alphabet, of course.  Because of this, there’s also a present-day bias to most of the documentaries I’ve reviewed.  I think the oldest one was released in 1981, but most are from the 2000s.

Here are number of documentaries that are highly regarded, award-winning, or just plain interest me that I’d like to seek out for the future.  Some are hard to find, and I expect some will be hard to watch.

  • 20 Feet From Stardom
  • Amy
  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil
  • Bill Cunningham New York
  • Blackfish
  • The Central Park Five
  • Common Threads
  • Don’t Look Back
  • F for Fake
  • The Fog of War
  • Grey Gardens
  • Grizzly Man
  • Harlan County USA
  • High School
  • An Inconvenient Truth
  • Into Great Silence
  • King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery To Memphis
  • Kon-Tiki
  • Koyaanisqatsi
  • The Last Waltz
  • The Man With a Movie Camera
  • The Most Dangerous Man in America
  • Murderball
  • Muscle Shoals
  • Nanook of the North
  • Night and Fog
  • Pelotero
  • Point of Order
  • Sans Soleil
  • Searching for Sugarman
  • Shoah
  • The Silent World
  • The Square
  • The Thin Blue Line
  • The Times of Harvey Milk
  • Titicut Follies – this is one I think would be very challenging to watch
  • Unforgivable Blackness
  • Welcome to Leith
  • When the Levees Broke – I did actually watch the first two of the four parts of this Spike Lee film about Hurricane Katrina several years ago, but got sidetracked and never completed it.

What documentaries would you recommend watching?

Movie Review: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “S” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “S” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne, and Secrets of Underground London.

TitleShe’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Release Date: 2014
Director: Mary Dore
Production Company: Music Box Films

This documentary offers a history of the second-wave feminist movement – a.k.a women’s liberation – of the late 1960s and 1970s. Rising from the New Left, Civil Rights Movement, and the anti-war movement, and inspired by the writing of Betty Friedan, women began to raise consciousness about their own lack of equality. And leftist men scoffed and insulted them (I’m disappointed in you leftist men!).

Interviews with activists and archival footage show women fighting for equality in their jobs, education, and marriages and seeking reproductive rights and child care. One of my favorite segments features many of the women who researched and wrote Our Bodies, Ourselves discussing the book together. The film culminates with the Women’s Strike for Equity, a massive protest on August 26, 1970 that commemorated 50 years of women’s suffrage while advocating for greater equality.

This documentary does not shy away from the struggles within the women’s movement. I’m pleased that they acknowledged how women’s liberation was largely a white women’s movement that ignored the specific concerns of Black women, when they were included at all. Lesbians also faced outright discrimination as well as handwringing over whether it would harm the movement if Lesbians were open about their sexual identity.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I learned a lot. I like to think I’m a student of the social movements of the 1960s, but I had only a passing familiarity with some of the women featured in this film and wasn’t aware of the Women’s Strike for Equity. Time to hit the books.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch The Black Panthers, a documentary about a liberation movement during the same time period with overlapping themes. Feminism is for Everybody is bell hooks’ wonderful primer on feminism and why we need it more now than ever.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Rape of Europa (2006) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “R” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first”R” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleThe Rape of Europa
Release Date: 12 November 2006
Director:  Richard Berge and Bonni Cohen
Production Company: Actual Films

This film documents the many threats to Europe’s art, architecture, and cultural treasures during World War II. Adolf Hitler, a failed artist himself, sought to acquire art treasures to satiate his ego and prop up the Reich.  He even had elaborate plans to remake his hometown of Linz, Austria into a cultural center that he worked on right up to his last days in the bunker under Berlin.  Well before invading other nations, the Nazis put together lists of art works to target and bring to Germany. The Nazis plundered museums and private collections, primarily of Jewish families, in every country they invaded.  Hermann Göring is a major figure in the Nazi art program, presented here as having a more sophisticated taste in art than Hitler, and also setting aside prime pieces for his own collection.

But the Nazis didn’t just steal art.  They also deliberately sought out and destroyed art.  Before the war, Hitler declared certain works and artists as “degenerate art” – primarily the work of Jewish artists, but he a general distaste for Modern Art.  The degenerate art was put on display in a mocking exhibition before being sold off at bargain prices, while much more art was destroyed.  When invading other countries, particularly Poland and Russia, the Nazis deliberately targeted the art and architecture of those countries in an attempt to erase their cultural heritage.

The movie also focuses on the efforts to preserve and protect art during the war.  Specifically, the Louvre and the Hermitage each had programs  involving dedicated staff and volunteers evacuating artworks and otherwise working to protect them from theft or damage.  The Allied armies were very cognizant of Europe’s cultural heritage and attempted to avoid destroying significant artistic and historical sites.  The results were not always good as in the case of the historic monastery of Monte Cassino that they bombed in an attempt to dislodge troops on the mountain, or the destruction of the historic frescoes in Pisa’s Camposanto Monumentale.  Other efforts were more successful, such as a plan for a bombing run on a very narrow target of a railroad depot in central Florence.  During and after the war, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program – aka the Monuments Men – worked to find, restore, and repatriate art stolen during the war.

More than 70 years after the war, art stolen by the Nazis is still being recovered and controversies continue about art in museums and private collections being returned to their heirs.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I think most of what this movie covered I was at best vaguely aware of which is why I ended up writing such a long summary.  It’s pretty alarming that art wasn’t a secondary concern during the war but something that involved extensive efforts and planning, whether it be to steal or destroy in the Nazis case, or to protect and repatriate on the Allied side.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I haven’t read the book or watched the movie about the Monuments Men, but I want to now.  Some good books that offer an insight into World War II in Europe include Lee Miller’s War and Ernie’s War.

Source: I watched this documentary on Amazon Prime Video.
Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Quill (2004) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “Q” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first “Q” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleQuill: The Life of A Guide Dog
Release Date: 2004
DirectorYôichi Sai
Production Company: Music Box Films

Finding a documentary that begins with Q was a bit of a challenge, but I spotted this Japanese movie about a guide dog while searching through Hoopla Digital’s offerings. Quill is a yellow lab puppy who is selected from his litter as a potential guide dog for the blind.  He spends his first year with a couple who are called “puppy walkers” who raise dogs before their training begins.  Quill departs for a guide dog training center where he learns basic skills.  Then he is paired with the cantankerous  Mitsuru Watanabe, a blind journalist who doesn’t like dogs and isn’t convinced that a guide dog will help him.  Eventually though, Quill and Watanabe grow fond of one another.

I watched this movie for about 30 minutes before I began to notice that the dialogue sounded scripted and that everything was being filmed from multiple camera angles.  In short, this movie wasn’t a documentary at all.  While the first half of the film feels in the documentary style, the later half is clearly more of comic and dramatic set pieces.  So, I goofed!  But I’m leaving this review in my A to Z because it’s a sweet film and apparently was based on a true story.

Spoiler: both Watanabe and Quill die in this movie, so while most of the movie is light and charming, be prepared to cry at the end.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I’ve learned that just because it’s tagged “documentary” doesn’t mean it’s actually a documentary.  Also, assuming that what’s depicted onscreen is true to life, there’s a lot of neat details about how dogs are trained to guide blind people in Japan.  For example, the handlers train the dogs to respond to English commands rather than Japanese so that they won’t be confused by what passersby may say.  The training center is a fascinating place where sidewalks, city streets, staircases, and ramps are recreated for the dogs and their handlers to practice on.  They even have places for the blind people to stay while learning to work with their guide dogs.

Source:  I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.

Movie Review: Paris is Burning (1990) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “P” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “P” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Pete Seeger: The Power of SongProhibition, and Punk’s Not Dead.

TitleParis is Burning
Release Date: August 16, 1991
Director: Jennie Livingston
Production Company: Academy Entertainment

Filmed in Harlem in the 1980s, Paris is Burning captures the intersection of poverty, race, sexuality, and gender identity.  The focus of the movie is the balls held in Elks Lodges and YMCAs in Harlem where participants “walk” to win trophies in a variety of categories.  An older participant tells the balls began as drag performances where participants wore Las Vegas-style showgirl attire, but have since grown to contain a bewildering number of categories including business attire, military dress, High Fashion Winter Sportswear, and “realness” – that is the ability to pass as a straight person.

Participants in the balls are members of Houses, a surrogate family for LBGTQ people who’ve often been disowned by their blood relatives, or as on interviewee states “a gay street gang.”  But the Houses do not fight with fists or knives, but on the floor of the balls where they try to bring honor to House LaBeija, House Extravangza, House Pendavis, and House Ninja, among others.

Candid interviews with participants – black and Latin American gay men and transgender individuals – show how the balls and houses provide them with security and support to be themselves and been seen for who they are.  The film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in the little victories and great prejudices the interviewees experience.  The ball being a place where one can “be whoever you want to be” is a positive, yet in many cases the participants are emulating a wealthy, white culture that would never accept them, and frankly one not worthy of being emulated.  One of the interviewees, a trans woman named Venus Xtravaganza so perfectly presents herself as a blonde, preppy teen not unlike those I went to school with in Connecticut.  Yet during the time of filming of Paris is Burning, Venus is horribly murdered, most likely a hate crime against her as a transgender person, and something that is an ongoing threat to black and Latin transgender people 28 years later.

This documentary about a subculture most people wouldn’t otherwise know anything about has left quite a cultural legacy.  Terms defined in the movie like “throwing shade” have become mainstream and the style of dancing at balls known as “voguing” of course became the source of a big hit song for Madonna. The sad thing watching this movie decades later is that many of the people feature in the movie have since died, and did not gain anything materially from the film, nor did they get to see the effect it had on mainstream culture.  The film stands as a memory of a time and place and a vessel that gives voice to people who would not otherwise have been heard.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This entire movie was an education and I expect it will be quite illuminating for most viewers.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I like this movie and think it is a well-intentioned tribute to the ball culture of the 1980s, and as all good documentaries it gets to the heart of what it means to be human. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it is very controversial and some criticize the movie for exploiting the participants and for cultural appropriation.  The feminist bell hooks wrote Is Paris Burning in response to this documentary.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Oklahoma City (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “O” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “O” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Once in a Lifetime  and The Opposition.

TitleOklahoma City
Release Date: 21 January 2017
Director: Barak Goodman
Production Company:  Ark Media Production for American Experience.

In April 1995, I was recovering from shoulder surgery and generally out of the loop of what was going on in the world when I heard murmurs of something terrible happening in Oklahoma City.  This was before the World Wide Web was widespread and we didn’t even have many TVs on my college campus so I always felt that when I finally caught up on the Oklahoma City bombing it was already an historical event, not something I lived through.  Watching this documentary 23 years later filled me in even more things I missed at the time.

The documentary centers the Oklahoma City bombing within the frame of a growing right-wing extremist movement that began in the 1980s – including white supremacists groups, 2nd Amendment absolutists, and Christianist sects.  The first segment of the film focuses on the Weaver family at Ruby Ridge and the second segment on the Branch Davidians at Waco, two incidents that convinced Timothy McVeigh that the government was set on attacking whites, Christians, and gun owners.  The third segment focuses on the planning the bombing and the devastation of the explosion.  McVeigh is the central figure of this part of the movie which follows the story of his disillusionment with the Army in the Gulf War and growing attraction to right-wing extremism through meeting people at gun shows.

I am very uncomfortable with the sympathetic portrayal of McVeigh in this film, particularly the repeated assertion that he opposed bullies, when any reasonable interpretation of McVeigh’s behavior would understand that he himself was a bully of the worst kind.  Fortunately, there are interviews with first responders and survivors of the blast – particularly parents of children in the Murrah Building’s daycare center who were killed and wounded – that relate the true horrors of that day and ongoing trauma.  Still, this is not the type of story where “balance” is appropriate, in my opinion.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This is a well-researched and well-documented history of the Oklahoma City Bombing and the right-wing extremist movement that informed McVeigh’s decision to carry out the bombing.  As we’ve seen movements with similar ideologies form the Tea Party, elect Donald Trump to the Presidency, and march openly in the streets of Charlottesville, it’s a chilling reminder of the hate and violence engendered by these beliefs.


If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I have nothing specifically related to Oklahoma City to recommend, but The Bloody Shirt by Stephen Budiansky reveals an earlier era of white supremacist extremism leading to violence and terror after the Civil War.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: No-No: A Dockumentary (2014) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “N” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “N” documentaries I’ve reviewed are New York: A Documentary FilmThe 1964 World’s FairThe Night James Brown Saved Boston and NOVA: Iceman Reborn.

TitleNo-No: A Dockumentary
Release Date: January 20, 2014
Director:  Jeff Radice
Production Company: Arts+Labor

Even if you’re a baseball fan, what you probably know about Dock Ellis is that he was a pitcher who threw a no-hitter in 1970 later claiming to be under the influence of LSD at the time.  This movie posits that Ellis was more than one weird story, but instead that he was a leader of a second generation of African American baseball players after integration.  Ellis spoke out against injustice to black and brown players and freely expressed his personality and African American culture.  Ellis received criticism from team management and the media for wearing curlers in his hair on field during pre-game warmups. In one key moment of the film, Ellis reads a supportive letter he received from Jackie Robinson, breaking up in tears as he reads it.

The high point of Ellis’ career was 1971 when his team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, won the World Series.  He was the top pitcher in the National League that season and after the American League announced Vida Blue as the starting pitcher for the All-Star Game, Ellis openly questioned if National League manager Sparky Anderson would “start two brothers against each other.”  Perhaps rising to the challenge, Anderson did start Ellis, making it the first time two Black pitchers started the All-Star Game.  Later the same season in a game started by Ellis, the Pirates made history by having a team entirely of black and Latin American players take the field for the first time ever.

Despite his on-field success, Ellis’ personal life was more troubled.  Like many ballplayers he was involved in a lot of partying after games as the team traveled across the country over a long season.  Over time Ellis fell into serious alcohol and drug dependency, punctuated by angry outbursts. His pitching performance became erratic and sometimes manifested in bizarre incidents such as the time he tried to bean every single batter on the Cincinnati Reds.  His home life was far worse.  His first two wives testify in the film to incidents of horrific domestic violence they received at the hands of Ellis.

After retiring from baseball in 1980, Ellis sought and received treatment for his addiction.  He dedicated the remainder of his life to working as a drug counselor both with minor league baseball players and with young men in prison.  The final portion of the film shows Ellis’ redemption for the bad things he’d done and the positive influence he made on people in counseling.  People interviewed in the film – teammates, friends, and those he counseled – all seem to remember Ellis fondly so I take it that his redemption was well earned.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I didn’t really know much about Dock Ellis so I learned a lot about him, but this movie is also a glimpse into the America of the late 1960s and 1970s and showing how cultural changes and the emergence of Black Power manifested in the national pastime.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch movies like The Black Panthers or Wattstax which each show different aspects of the social and cultural changes of the Black Power era in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Also check out The Baseball Project song “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads.”

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Miss Sharon Jones! (2015) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “M” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “M” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Mad Hot BallroomMan on WireMaradona ’86March of the Penguins, Mathematically AliveMysteries of the Rimet TrophyThe Myth of Garrincha and possibly My Winnipeg.

TitleMiss Sharon Jones!
Release Date: 11 September 2015
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films

This is the second straight movie in the A-to-Z project that focuses on a creative person dealing with the effects of cancer on their lives and career.  While Life Itself showed Roger Ebert’s treatment at a rehabilitation center as a frame for the full story of his life, Miss Sharon Jones! focuses entirely on Sharon Jones’ treatment and recovery and her return to recording and performing filmed over the course of 2013-14 with only brief mentions of her earlier life and career.

This film is very intimate showing Jones cutting off her hair in preparation for surgery, the boredom and pain of chemotherapy, and her daily schedule of tv viewing while recovering at a friends’ house.  Jones often seems to be the happiest one around while her friends and colleagues worry about her health and deal with the stress of not knowing if they can commit the band to tour dates.  But sometimes her facade cracks such as the moment when her band suggests canceling their Thanksgiving dinner and Jones loses her cool.

Near the end of the film, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings make their triumphant return to the stage at the Beacon Theater, the camera catching Sharon Jones waiting nervously in the wings before confidently strutting on stage.  The performance isn’t perfect – Jones forgets the lyrics to a song – but the support and love from the band and audience makes it all the more exhilarating.  The movie ends on a happy ending, but it doesn’t last.  Shortly after the film’s premiere, Jones announced that the cancer had returned, and she died in November 2016 at the age of 60.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

First of all, if you don’t know the music of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, this is a wonderful introduction.  More importantly, this is a story of human resilience and joy in life from someone who has encountered more than her fair share of adversity.

This is best summed up in her song “I’m Still Here.”

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read my Music Discoveries post offering a comprehensive summary of the output of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings up to 2016 as well as my album review of her posthumous final album Soul of a Woman.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Life Itself (2014) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “L” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “L” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man and loudQUIETloud: a film about the Pixies.

TitleLife Itself
Release Date: July 4, 2014
Director: Steve James
Production Company: Kartemquin Films

And now Blogging A to Z gets meta as a write a film review about a movie about a movie critic.  It’s interesting that Life Itself follows just after Koch, because Roger Ebert (and his “At the Movies” partner Gene Siskel) is like Ed Koch in that he was a popular culture presence of my childhood.  I’ve always liked Ebert’s movie reviews because he was consistent enough that I could tell when something he liked would be something I wouldn’t like (and vice versa).

The movie fills in the details of his life from his work on a college newspaper, joining the Chicago Sun-Times and rather arbitrarily being assigned to be film critic, his screenplay for the bizarre cult classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and his struggles with alcoholism.  There’s a lot I didn’t know and Gene Siskel and the tv show don’t even appear until about 45 minutes in.

Turns out all those arguments Siskel & Ebert had on tv were rooted in a contentious relationship offscreen, albeit they would grow to have a mutual admiration.  There are some hilarious outtakes from “At the Movies” of the pair testily correcting one another. Later in the movie we learn about his marriage at the age of 50 to Chaz Hammelsmith, his reactions to Siskel’s death, his own challenges with cancer, and his transition into becoming a blogger when he can no longer speak. In addition to friends and family, directors Ava DuVernay, Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and Martin Scorsese testify to Ebert’s role in bring attention to their films (and I’m tickled that I’m watching documentaries by the first three of those directors for the A to Z Challenge).

The frame of the movie shows Ebert going through rehabilitation in the months before his death due to the ongoing scourge of cancer. Ebert is insistent on the film showing the damage to his body, such as the complete removal of his lower jaw, and the treatment he goes through in the hospital. Part of Ebert’s desire for complete transparency regarding his health is due to the feeling of betrayal when Gene Siskel kept his own mortal illness a secret. Unable to speak, he frequently uses the thumbs up gesture to respond to his family and caregivers, ironic considering how connected he was to thumbs up/thumbs down as a film critic.

It’s heartbreaking that Roger Ebert watched over 10,000 movies in his lifetime, but never saw this one.  But I do believe that he’d be pleased that the movie was made on his terms and that it’s an affecting piece of motion picture arts.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Whether you came to know Roger Ebert through his tv show in the 1980s or his blog in the 2000s or you don’t even really know him at all, this is a human story that fleshes out a life that we only get glimpses of in the public eye.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch one or more movies from Ebert’s final list of all-time favorites:

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
  • Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
  • Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
  • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
  • La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
  • The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)
  • Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980)
  • Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953)
  • The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2010)
  • Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Source: I watched this movie on Hoopla Digital.  It is also available to Hulu subscribers.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Koch (2012) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “K” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “K” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Keith Richards: Under the Influence and Knuckleball!

Title: Koch
Release Date: October 8, 2012
Director: Neil Barsky
Production Company: Zeitgeist Films

I grew up in a Connecticut suburb of New York City and one of the most significant public figures in my childhood was Mayor Ed Koch.  I mean, he was certainly more present in my life than the mayor of my hometown.  As far as I knew he’d always been mayor of New York and always would be (not true, as Koch was first elected mayor the same month I turned 4).

The documentary covers his life, largely focused on the 12 years he spent as mayor of New York.  The film captures his charm, humor, and positive energy that made him a popular and transformative mayor of New York at a time when crime, homelessness, and decay had made the City a shameful place to live.  Yet, the movie doesn’t shy away from his downside – particularly his reprehensible treatment of the City’s African American community, corruption in his administration, and his general mean-spirited submissiveness of anyone who had a contrary opinion.

In addition to a great array of archival footage, there are extensive interviews with Koch in his last years.  Despite the passage of time, Koch doesn’t display any regrets or recognize any mistakes he made.  In fact he seems to have hardened in his opinions, adopting views such as hateful Islamophobia.  It’s rare that a biographical documentary makes me like a person LESS than before I watched it, but that is the case here.  But it’s also hard to deny that Koch was the quintessential New Yorker and left an indelible mark on the City, for good and for ill.

From a film making perspective, one of the most remarkable parts of this documentary is an extended sequence set on Election Day in 2010.  As Koch learns that Andrew Cuomo (whom he endorsed for governor) is not going to meet with him at the election celebration, Koch decides to leave the party.  The camera follows him all the way home until Koch shuts the door on his modest apartment.  It’s pretty powerful in saying so much about Koch and his legacy without any narration to explain it.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Ed Koch is kind of a dick, but he’s still pretty funny.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Watch American Experience: Blackout, an incident that was key in prompting New Yorkers to vote for Koch.  The book Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning also includes extensive coverage of the 1977 mayoral election. The essays collected in New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg are largely focused on the Koch Era.  Ric Burns’ New York: A Documentary Film provides a more extensive history of the City.

Finally, I’ve always loved this short film “Sundae in New York.”

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Jane (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “J” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first J documentary I’ve reviewed.

Title: Jane
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Director: Brett Morgen
Production Company: National Geographic Studios

If there’s a reason that I am a person who likes documentaries it probably begins with my childhood when I loved “nature films.”  And the best nature films of that era were National Geographic Specials.  And the most memorable National Geographic Special debuted in 1984: “Among the Wild Chimpanzees.”  I watched it many times and learned to love and admire  the naturalist Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees she introduced, David Greybeard, Flo, Fifi, Flint, Goliath, and many others.

Jane is made using over 100 hours of film shot by Hugo van Lawick in the early 1960s during the period when Goodall was first accepted into the Kasakela chimpanzee community and discovered that chimpanzees used tools, ate meat, and carried out brutal violence on one another. The film is remarkable as we see Jane Goodall, looking younger than I’ve ever seen her in sharp, brilliant colors that look like they were shot yesterday. Goodall herself narrates the film in a series of interviews, scenes of her in the present day occasionally intercut with the archival footage.  What’s remarkable about this film is that it has a retrospective view of Goodall as an older person, yet the use of the archival film allows the story to unfold the process of discovery as if it were just happening.

That the 1960s footage focuses on Goodall as much as the chimpanzees is not surprising when one learns that Goodall and von Lawick fall in love and marry.  Goodall’s personal life is a key part of this documentary, with their initially joyful marriage, the birth of their son Grub and raising him at Gombe, and the strain on the marriage when neither Goodall nor von Lawick wish to give up their work to be together, thus ending in divorce.  Goodall’s growth and acceptance in the scientific community that discriminated against her as a woman, and a young woman with no higher education credentials at that, is also explored.

As a lover of all things Jane Goodall and chimpanzees, I’m the target audience for this documentary.  But I still think I’m objective enough to state that this is a remarkable documentary film that will educated and delight wide audiences.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

In an odd way this is kind of like a “reboot” or “prequel” that fills in the details before other documentaries about Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees of Gombe.  It also shows how her professional and personal lives were intertwined.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

In addition to digging up those old National Geographic Specials, I recommend reading Jane Goodall’s books, including Through a Window and Reason for Hope. You can also read the biography of Goodall by Dale Peterson.

Source: I watched this on demand through Xfinity cable.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: I Am Not Your Negro (2016) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “I” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “I” documentaries I’ve reviewed are I Am Big Bird.

Title: I Am Not Your Negro
Release Date: September 10, 2016
DirectorRaoul Peck
Production Company: Velvet Film

On the surface, this is a documentary about the novelist, poet, and social critic James Baldwin, but peel back the layers and this is a remarkable achievement in pushing the boundaries of documentary film.  The film is an adaptation of an unpublished manuscript, Remember This House, written by Baldwin about his personal memories of three murdered Civil Rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The voiceover text read by Samuel L. Jackson is entirely drawn from this work.

But even then there’s more to this movie as it is intercut with archival footage of James Baldwin’s television and public appearances, news footage, and scenes from movies that Baldwin critiques.  To highlight the relevance of Baldwin’s writings to our present times, the film also includes footage of recent protests and disturbances in Ferguson and Baltimore.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that there’s a lot going on in this movie, yet it feels streamlined and logical in its arrangement.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

I Am Not Your Negro is a crucial education in the understanding of race in America and the ongoing effects of the original sins of white supremacy rooted in our country.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read the works of James Baldwin, including The Fire Next Time. Ta-Nehisi Coates is in many ways the heir to Baldwin as social critic on race in America especially in his seminal work Between the World and Me.

Source: I watched this movie on Amazon Prime Video.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “H” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “H” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Harvard Beats Yale 29 to 29HeimaHelveticaHillsboroughThe Historic Pubs of Dublin, and The Hollywood Librarian.

Title: Hieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil
Release Date: 19 November 2015
Director: Pieter van Huystee
Production Company: Kino Lorber

The paintings of Hieronymous Bosch are a curiosity in art history.  His art straddles the line from medieval into the renaissance, but the otherworldly scenes he paints are often strikingly modern.  You could imagine Bosch’s work being displayed alongside Salvador Dali and M.C. Escher.

This documentary focuses on a group of art experts gathering together Bosch’s works for display in an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of his death, to be held in his home town of  ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands.  The problem is that the small city of Den Bosch (as the Dutch colloquially call it) does not have many of their native son’s works, so have they have to venture to the Prado in Madrid, Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, National Gallery of Art in Washington, and elsewhere.  There’s considerable tension in the meetings with the museum directors and curator, especially at the Prado, that do not wish to share the art.

The movie also shows some of the fascinating work done by conservationists to preserve and protect the art. The art researchers also use all manner of high tech tools to authenticate the art as it is often unclear if works are by Bosch or by his workshop or otherwise misattributed.  At one point in the film,  they are actually able to authenticate a small painting at Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” as an original work of Bosch rather than his workshop.

With Bosch’s work, the devil is in the details (often literally) and like Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the best parts of this documentary is when the camera moves across the painting and stops to linger on those details.  It’s an amazing effect that the motion picture camera can have on studying a still image to bring out things that may not be noticed by the naked eye.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This film is informative on the work and what is little known about the life of Hieronymus Bosch.  I was amazed by the work that is done by art conservators and researchers who authenticate art.  And it’s a behind the scenes view of the sometimes testy and delicate nature of working in the art world.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Listen to a performance of the “butt music” from Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights:”

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: **1/2


#AtoZChallenge Bonus: Favorite Documentaries

Sunday is a rest day in the Blogging A to Z Challenge, so it’s a good time to relax and reflect on all the documentary films I’ve been watching and reviewing lately.  I hope you’ve noticed that I’ve been linking to earlier reviews of documentaries I watched over the years since I started blogging.  This is not just a trick to get more page views, but I do like to make my readers aware of these movies and open discussions.
Of course, I haven’t always had a blog, so here are some of my favorite documentaries that I watched before 2006:
Documentary TV Series:
In addition to movies, here are some high quality documentary tv shows I’ve loved watching.
  • Connections (1978-1997)
  • Eyes on the Prize (1987-1990)
  • Ken Burns films – probably the premiere historical documentary filmmaker of our times. I’m a big fan yet it seems that I’ve only watched a portion of his output:
    • Brooklyn Bridge (1981)
    • The Shakers: Hands to Work, Hearts to God (1984)
    • The Statue of Liberty (1985)
    • The Civil War (1990)
    • Baseball (1994)
    • Thomas Jefferson (1997)
    • Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)
    • Frank Lloyd Wright (1998)
    • The War (2007)
    • The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (2009)
    • Prohibition (2011)
    • The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014)
  • National Geographic Specials – These specials were always a highlight of my childhood (more on that when we get to the letter “J” on Wednesday).  Here are two of the most memorable episodes:
    • Polar Bear Alert (1982)
    • Among the Wild Chimpanzees (1984)
  • Nature (1982-present)
  • Our World (1986-1987)
  • The Zoo (2017-present)

Leave me a comment if you have a favorite documentary film or tv show that you’d recommend!

Movie Review: Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World (2012) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “G” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “G” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Galapagos: The Enchanted VoyageThe Gnomistand Gimme Shelter.

TitleGoldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World
Release Date: 4 September 2012
Director: Jérôme Fritel and Marc Roche
Production Company: Capa Presse

This French-language documentary explores the role of the investment bank Goldman Sachs in the Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, the Greek Debt Crisis, and other financial scandals.  It also shows the alarming number of Goldman Sachs’ alumni active in the United States government and the European Union council.

This is a movie where the expose style of documentary hurts more than helps.  Goldman Sachs and other financial services industry corporations are almost certainly bad actors in the governments and economies of the world.  But this documentary comes off as a conspiracy theory, and it doesn’t help that none of the people interviewed on screen are ever identified.  There are also cheesy factors such as having interviewees make their first appearance on grainy black & white film as if they were on security cameras and framing the film with digital stock ticker symbols that just make the movie look ridiculous.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

There are some interesting details such as former Goldman Sachs people in the government using the financial crisis to punish Goldman Sachs’ competitors at Lehman Bros while bailing out AIG where Goldman Sachs had investments that I learned, but as I noted above it’s hard to parse out the truth from the hyperbolic conspiracy theory vibe.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …: Watch The Big Short, a docu-drama about the causes of the financial crisis, or a read the book it’s based on.  For a more positive spin on an earlier era of Goldman Sachs, read John Whitehead’s autobiography A Life in Leadership.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Finding Vivian Maier (2013) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “F” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “F” documentaries I’ve reviewed are 56 UpFour Days in Octoberand Frank Lloyd Wright.

Title: Finding Vivian Maier
Release Date: September 9, 2013
Director: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel
Production Company: Ravine Pictures

This documentary is a labor of love for John Maloof, a collector who purchased a lot of photographs, negatives, and film at auction, and discovered the work of a brilliant street photographer of 20th century Chicago.  The problem is, no one seemed to know who she was.  Through his investigations, he discovers that Vivian Maier worked primarily as a nanny or housekeeper in the Chicago area from the 1950s to 1990s, taking hundreds of thousands of photographs as well as films and audio recordings.  Maloof attempts to learn something of Maier from the archive she left behind while also interviewing people who knew her, primarily adults who had been cared for by her when they were children.  The picture that emerges of Maier is of someone who was adventurous and clever to find domestic jobs that gave her the free time to explore her photographic art.  Yet there’s also an image of mental illness.  Some of the children she cared for found her loving and fun, while others thought her scary and abusive.  Her strict sense of privacy sometimes bordered on paranoid, and her collection of photographs, letters, and newspapers tipped into hoarding. At the end it’s still very hard to get a sense of who Maier was or why she never released her photos to the world, but the pictures she took are stunning in the depictions of everyday people, particularly the poor and down on their luck.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This movie is a lesson in the fact that great talent can be found in hidden places.  But it also brings up questions of gender.  Would a man who took odd jobs to support his lifelong passion for photography be considered so odd? Would he have gone his entire life without receiving public attention for his work?

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …: Check out the work of some women photographers who did receive acclaim in their lifetimes in books like Lee Miller’s War or Crosstown by Helen Levitt (the latter’s work is strikingly similar to Vivian Maier’s).

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “E” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. This is the first”E” documentary I’ve reviewed.

TitleExit Through the Gift Shop
Release Date: January 24, 2010
Director: Banksy
Production Company: Paranoid Pictures

This is called “A Banksy Film,” but right at the beginning Banksy (or someone claiming to be Banksy since his face and voice are obstructed) says it’s actually about someone he finds more interesting. That person is a French immigrant to Los Angeles who runs a consignment shop,  Thierry Guetta.  Guetta has a hobby of videotaping just about anything going on his life and through a cousin known as Invader he’s introduced to the underground world of street art.  He soon begins following and filming some of the most famed street artists at work including Shepard Fairey, and ultimately Banksy.

While purportedly working on a documentary about street artists, Guetta has no experience editing and producing a movie and ends up with hundreds of hours of unwatched film.  About 2/3’s of the way through Exit Through the Gift Shop, the perspective shifts and ends up following Guetta as he takes up street art himself under the name Mr. Brainwash and setting up a ludicrously oversized gallery exhibition in Los Angeles.  The tension in the later parts of the film weighs heavily on Guetta clearly having no skill as an artist or experience putting on an exhibition, but ultimately drawing a huge audience and making huge profits in art sales (much to the disgust of the experienced street artists).

There are questions about whether this movie is a hoax and even if Guetta is a real person or an actor, perhaps even the real Banksy.  My impression is that parts of it are true, such as Guetta really being a hanger-on obsessed  with filming street artists, whereas the exhibition was likely put together by Banksy and others using Guetta as the front in an attempt to parody the consumerist culture of the art world.  At least I hope Guetta was in on the joke.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Hoax or not, Exit Through the Gift Shop was an introduction to me of many prominent street artists and the methods of their work.  As a film it also works as a prompt to question media and learning to distinguish between what is real and what the creators are trying to make you believe.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …: Watch The Case of the Grinning Cat which documents the cultural phenomenon of a work of street art in Paris in the early 2000s. unSpun is a guidebook to sorting fact from fiction.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ***