I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.
Title: Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer Release Date: September 29, 1975 Director: Thom Andersen Production Company: New Yorker Films Summary/Review:
Created as a student film by Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself), this documentary covers the contributions of Eadweard Muybridge as a pioneer in motion pictures. Muybridge created a means of capturing motion through an array of cameras and trip wires to take multiple photos in sequence. Over the years 1882 to 1893, he photographed 100s of subjects including various animals, men, women, and children performing various actions for scientific study. These were collected in a massive portfolio called Animal Locomotion: an Electro-photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements.
The movie is narrated in a clinical tone by Dean Stockwell and offers a short biography of Muybridge (he killed a man!), a catalog of his works, some tantalizingly few details about the identity of the people in his photos, and some reflection on how they were often nude despite the strict mores of the era. The film also notes that despite pioneering motion pictures, he had little effect on cinema. By the 1890s, new cameras using reels of film swiftly made Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope obsolete. I suppose it could be argued that Muybridge provided the antecedent for the animated GIF!
This is fascinating and well-made documentary that provides a look into some odd but groundbreaking research of the late 19th century.
Author: Howard Bryant Title: Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original Narrator: JD Jackson Publication Info: HarperAudio (2022) Summary/Review:
Rickey Henderson is a man of contrasts. He was one of the great baseball players of all time, breaking multiple records, and then playing another decade seemingly never wanting to retire. And yet football was his favorite sport which he really wanted to play instead of baseball. He worked hard to develop his game and yet he got a reputation for lackadaisical play and missing games. His flashy style of play earned him the enmity of the conservative, white sports media but the love of young fans especially in the Black community. His approach to baseball of aiming to get on base by any means and scoring runs was looked down upon by the experts of the time who valued batting average and power, but was vindicated by the Sabermetric approach that came into vogue in the 2000s right as Rickey was retiring.
Bryant interviewed Rickey and several important people in his life, including his wife Pamela. His life story is tied to his hometown of Oakland, a segregated city where the Black children found an outlet in the community sports leagues that produced a great number of professional sports stars. One of these was Billy Martin, a cantankerous figure who became a mentor and friend to Rickey as his manager in Oakland and New York. Bryant follows Rickey’s career through 4 stints with the Oakland A’s, a troubled period with the Yankees, and a final decade as a nomad playing for any team who would have him. Highlights include winning the World Series in the 1989 and 1993 and the AL MVP in 1990.
I can’t say that you really get to know Rickey Henderson from this biography. Despite his outsized personality, he’s a very private person, and one who seems detached because of he worries about his lack of education showing as well as his inability to remember names. But I think Bryant does a brilliant job regardless of telling Rickey’s story. His career coincides with a time in baseball when free agency made the star players multi-millionaires and Black players like Rickey were no longer willing to show deference to the white owners and media. I’ve always liked Rickey and this book just makes me like him more.
Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger by Jean Rhodes
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
Author: John Hawkins Title: Conscience and Courage: How Visionary CEO Henri Termeer Built a Biotech Giant and Pioneered the Rare Disease Industry Publication Info: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press (2019) Summary/Review:
This is a book I read for research at work. It is a biography of the Dutch-born Henri Termeer who emigrated to the US to study at UVA’s Darden School of Business. He then entered into the emerging biotech industry the blossomed in the Boston and Cambridge area in the 1980s. Termeer joined the startup Genzyme Corporation in the early 80s and soon rose to president. (Personal note: when I first moved to Boston in the late 90s I worked as a temp at Genzyme).
Termeer focused Genzyme on orphan diseases so-called because even though they are life-threatening illnesses they affect fewer than 200,000 people and thus there is not a lot of people and resources put toward treating the diseases. Termeer’s patient-focused approach won him accolades due to the life-saving nature of Genzyme’s treatments. But the success came with the high costs of research and development, expensive ingredients, and only a small number of patients to share the costs of some of the most expensive drugs in the world.
Title: Weird: The Al Yankovic Story Release Date: November 4, 2022 Director: Eric Appel Production Company:Funny or Die | Tango Entertainment Summary/Review:
The long-awaited biopic of comedy/parody musician “Weird Al” Yankovic is appropriately weird. Daniel Radcliffe stars as Yankovic depicting all the sordid details of Weird Al’s rock & roll lifestyle: attending illicit polka parties as teenager, the (de)mentorship of Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson), his lurid affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood), his drunken rage when Michael Jackson steals the music to his original song “Eat It,” and ultimately his reconciliation with his disapproving parents (Toby Huss and Julianne Nicholson). Some of the things depicted in this movie are even true, if not perhaps factual.
This is a fun movie that parodies biopics of musicians in much the same way Yankovic parodies pop songs. Radcliffe is clearly having a great time and has no shame indulging the silliness. Wood is somehow more Madonna than Madonna and steals the screen when she is around. I also enjoy the many Easter eggs and cameos by current celebrities portraying celebrities of the 70s and 80s. Seeing them all together at a party scene makes me remember that in those days, Weird Al wasn’t really all that weird.
Title: Gandhi Release Date: 30 November 1982 Director: Richard Attenborough Production Company: Goldcrest Films | International Film Investors | National Film Development Corporation of India | Indo-British Films Summary/Review:
I saw Gandhi in its first run in the movie theaters which means I must’ve been 9-years-old at the time. That seems young to watch an epic historical drama, and it may be the only movie I ever went to with an intermission. But Gandhi resonated with me perhaps due to some combination of being a history geek inclined towards social justice and a budding cinephile. I saw the movie a few more times on tv but it has been more than 35 years since my last viewing.
I wondered if the movie would hold up since a lot of movies that received lots of awards in the 1980s are less well-regarded. There’s also the fact that the movie about a seminal figure in Indian history is directed and produced by British and American filmmakers. I did get the sense that throughout the movie the perspective is coming through white characters – a priest, journalists, politicians, and a pilgrim – which tends to keep Gandhi at a remove. Also the biggest criticism I’ve seen about this movie, with which I agree, is that it makes Gandhi too perfect. This has the unfortunate effect of making the characters around him look bad, even villainous, especially Muslim leader and founder of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee).
Despite these failures in cultural competence, I feel that Attenborough and co. were really trying their best to make a film that does justice to the life and movements of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley). Kingsley performance is excellent and the cast features many top-notch Indian, British, and American actors, even in small roles. Compressing six decades of Gandhi’s life and the larger Indian independence movement into 3 hours is hard but the film has several memorable set pieces that I’ve remembered over the years, from the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre to Gandhi and his wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi) sweetly recreating their wedding ceremony for a couple of reporters. The movie is also impressively filmed with beautiful cinematography framing intimate moments between a couple of characters ranging to massive crowd scenes.
So I’d say that Gandhi has held up and is a worthwhile introduction to his life and the history of India and Pakistan with issues that still reverberate to this day.
Title: The Kids in the Hall: Comedy Punks Release Date: March 15, 2022 Director: Reginald Harkema Production Company: Blue Ant Media Summary/Review:
This two-part documentary on Amazon Prime Video is tied in with the release of a new season of The Kids in the Hall, the first in 27 years! I’m not going to review that series but if you’re a fan of the Kids in the Hall, watch it because it’s excellent and they haven’t missed a step. The documentary features interviews with all five Kids – Dave Foley, Bruce McCulloch, Kevin McDonald, Mark McKinney, and Scott Thompson – as well as producer Lorne Michaels, writer Paul Bellini, and celebrity fans like Mike Myers and Eddie Izzard, among others. It also is rich in archival footage and clips from various KITH all projects.
I learned that Dave & Kevin were the closest partnership in the group and had started performing together in Toronto. Meanwhile Bruce and Mark began working together in Calgary before moving to Toronto. The four of them formed the Kids in the Hall (which Mark wanted to call The Audience) and then Scott Thompson willed himself into the group. I also learned that Scott had survived a mass shooting at his school in Ontario as a child which has informed his work. KITH also made a miniseries in 2012 called Death Comes to Town which I’d never even heard of.
This is a solid and informative documentary. But it does strike me as an extremely conventional approach for a documentary about an unconventional comedy team. At least Paul Bellini wears a towel during some of his interviews.
Title: Val Release Date: July 23, 2021 Director: Leo Scott and Ting Poo Production Company: A24 | IAC Films | Boardwalk Pictures | Cartel Films Summary/Review:
What would it be like if you had a movie made of your entire life? Actor Val Kilmer answers that question in this unique documentary made out of home hundreds of hours of movie footage he shot starting in childhood. I remember really liking Kilmer early in his career when he starred in Top Secret! and Real Genius, and always wondered why he didn’t do more comedy. He became more famous for his roles in movies like Top Gun and The Doors, and starred as Batman in one of the 90s version of that franchise.
Today, Kilmer’s voice has been damaged by throat cancer. He wrote the narration for the film which is read by his son Jack, who sounds startlingly like a younger Val. In this film we see the surprisingly sophisticated movies he made as a child with his brother, his theater training at Julliard, and his ongoing frustration with a Hollywood system that has little use for his style of acting. This has given him a reputation as a troublesome actor, although there are also many actors and directors who’ve enjoyed working with him. The movie also delves into his personal life and doesn’t always show him in the best light.
This is a kind of fascinating movie which I think is more than your typical celebrity biography, but also an examination of an actor’s life.
Title: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You Release Date: January 21, 2016 Director: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady Production Company: Loki Films | Thirteen/WNET Summary/Review:
Several years ago I read Norman Lear’s autobiography Even This I Get To Experience, and this documentary is basically a companion piece to that book. There isn’t much to the film that wasn’t covered by the book, but with its subject being someone who worked in a visual medium it’s great to see what they are talking about. There are some issues that came up in writing the book, such as Lear’s relationship with his father, that he came to see in a different way. He also admits that one of his oft-repeated family stories was a lie.
Lear, of course, was the tv producer responsible for creating sitcoms like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Maude, and One Day at a Time. All of these shows attempted to show realistic families dealing with issues of the day in an honest (but funny) manner that had never before been done on television and rarely has been done since. The documentary focuses almost entirely on Lear’s tv career in the 1970s with a little bit about his activist work for People for the American Way tacked on the end. The movie has a bit of fluff including recurring scenes of a child actor wearing Lear’s trademark hat representing Lear’s “inner child” and coming off as mawkish. Otherwise it’s a straightforward and solid documentary but I think someone who was as revolutionary to the the tv medium as Lear deserve a more revolutionary documentary.
Title: My Name Is Pauli Murray Release Date: September 17, 2021 Director: Betsy West and Julie Cohen Production Company: Participant | Storyville Films | Drexler Films Summary/Review:
This documentary makes the convincing argument that Pauli Murray (1910-1985 – a lawyer, civil rights activist, women’s equality activist, Episcopal priest, and author – should be more well known. Murray also privately wrote about gender identity in a way that today would be considered transgender or nonbinary. (Note: the people in the documentary use she/her pronouns for Murray, and I will use them in this review, although they/them pronouns could also be used).
Murray was raised by her grandparents in Durham, NC, as part of a large mixed-race family that supported her breaking with conventional gender norms of the time. Starting in the 1930s, Murray was active in protesting segregation on buses and at lunch counters, and attempted to gain admittance to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill in a widely-publicized case. Instead she attended law school at Howard University where she was the only woman in the class and finished at the top of the class.
Over her career, Murray would work for a prominent law firm and served in organizations such the Workers’ Defense League (WDL), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and co-founded the National Organization for Women (NOW). She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and her writings and ideas influenced Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Her concept of “Jane Crow” fostered a women’s equality movement alongside the civil rights movement in the 1960s. She became the first African-American woman ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977. And she wrote poetry. And all of this is just scratching the surface.
This documentary is a good introduction to a person who should already be famous and whose ideas shaped the world we live in today.
Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies. This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!
Today, I’m cheating a bit and using the subtitle because I had more “P” movies that I wanted to watch than “I” movies. Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter I that I have previously reviewed include:
Title: Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché Release Date: 27 February 2021 Director: Celeste Bell & Paul Sng Production Company: Generation Indigo Films | Polydoc Films | Tyke Films | Velvet Joy Productions Summary/Review:
I’ve only recently become acquainted with the music of the seminal UK punk band X-Ray Spex so I was eager to watch the biography of the band’s lead vocalist and songwriter, Poly Styrene. The film is narrated by her daughter Celeste Bell and themed around Bell sorting through the artifacts of Poly Styrene’s career several years after her death in 2011, and reconciling the mother she knew to the punk icon. Actor Ruth Negga provides the voice reading from Poly Styrene’s diaries.
Born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, Poly Styrene grew up feeling isolated as a mixed race child in class conscious England. Inspired by seeing the Sex Pistols, she formed a band which she fronted with her unique voice and anti-fashion styles. The themes of consumerism and artificiality are frequent both in her music and in this story of her life. She reacted negatively to fame which intensified mental health issues. Poly Styrene’s career as a punk musician was short but the movie also focuses on her later life, especially her time in the Hari Krishna movement.
I’ve read other reviews that note that a lot of the material in this movie is featured in other documentaries on X-Ray Spex. But coming to Poly Styrene’s story new I found it to be a brilliant introduction to her life and career.