Title: Zion Release Date: August 10, 2018 Director: Floyd Russ Production Company: Netflix Summary/Review:
Zion Clark is a young man who was born without legs who finds his place as a wrestler in high school. It pretty much leans into the inspiration cliches of both movies about sports and movies about people with disabilities. Which is fine, it is well done for an 11-minute film. But I do wish it had been more educational. Like, tell us a little bit about wrestling and how Zion adapts his body type to competing in the sport.
Title: 1991: The Year Punk Broke Release Date: 24 December 1992 Director: Dave Markey Production Company: We Got Power Productions | Sonic Life Summary/Review:
This concert/tour film follows Sonic Youth along with Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Babes in Toyland, Gumball and The Ramones as they tour festivals in Ireland, England, Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands in the end of August of 1991. This occured as the same time as the hard line coup against Gorbachev in the U.S.S.R and more personally right when I started my first year in college. While I was never a big fan of Sonic Youth (nor did I dislike them), they were at the vanguard of what was called “college rock” at the time and soon would be “alternative rock,” so this film is a time capsule of an exciting period in my life.
There’s a homemade feel to the documentary that seems appropriate to an ethos that was against “selling out.” The concert footage is quite good and I like the disorienting effect of editing together performances of the same songs from different shows. The montages of the artists and their colleagues goofing off around Europe are also entertaining. There is however an element of cringe to how people behave that reminds me how stupid we were back then. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is particularly insufferable. On the other hand, while Sonic Youth may seem to represent the voice of my generation, while researching this movie I learned that mindblowing fact that the members of the band were born in the 1950s. They’re all Baby Boomers who are closer in age to my parents than they are to me! I guess they’re literally Sonic Youthful!
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!
Since it’s so hard to find things starting with the letter X, I typically go algebraic and use X to represent a number. But in this case I have a movie title that starts with the letter X but is also part of the Roman numeral for “15.”
Documentaries starting with the letter X that I have previously reviewed include:
Title: XV: Beyond the Tryline Release Date: December 5, 2016 Director: Pierre Deschamps Production Company: RWC Legacy Productions (main) | Finite Films | Documentree Films | Scampy Jones Media Summary/Review:
I know next to nothing about rugby other than that there are two codes – rugby union and rugby league – and fans are fiercely partisan about which code is better. This documentary takes place at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England where national rugby union teams representing twenty countries participated. Your typical sports documentary would feature highlights with interviews with players, coaches, journalists, and maybe some fans. This documentary is different as it explores the game of rugby with interviews with a referee, the medical staff, stadium volunteers, choirs performing the national anthems, the locker room logistics expert, a photographer, amateur rugby players and coaches, parents, and the groundskeeper at Twickenham Stadium (Keith Kent, the groundskeeper was my favorite). I still don’t know much about rugby, but I found the enthusiasm that all these people had for the sport to be infectious.
Title: We Were Here Release Date: September 2011 Director: David Weissman and Bill Weber Production Company: Weismann Projects Summary/Review:
We Were There examines the HIV/AIDS epidemic in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s through interviews with five members of the community who lived through the plague. The subjects include a counselor to gay men, a nurse, and a florist who ended up providing flowers for many funerals. They tell heart wrenching stories of the unfathomable numbers of deaths of friends, partners, and family members while at the same time facing stigmatization from a society that discriminates against queer people. And yet, there’s a lot of hope in these stories too. LGBTQ people often talk of their community as family, when their blood relatives may have shunned them. The epidemic brought this family in San Francisco together to care for one another and inspired a generation of activists. This is a very simple documentary in form but it contains a very powerful message.
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: Uprising Release Date: July 20, 2021 Director: Steve McQueen and James Rogan Production Company: Rogan Productions | BBC | Lammas Park | Turbine Studios Summary/Review:
This three part documentary series details the emergence of a new civil rights movement among Black British people in the early 1980s. At the time, the fascist National Front was gaining support with their anti-Black and anti-immigrant views that were echoed in the opinions of the new prime minister Margaret Thatcher. The subjects of this documentary are primarily British-born children of West Indian immigrants who grew up in this atmosphere in the 70s and 80s.
The first part focuses on an event that catalyzed the movement, a fire at a house party in South East London in January 1981 that killed 13 children and young adults. Witnesses believe they saw someone throw a firebomb into the house (a tactic that had been used by racists elsewhere in London) but the police investigation focused on blaming the victims. Public officials and the news media responded with indifference and derision.
The centerpiece of the second part is the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981 when 20,000 people marched through London. Black people from across England came to participate in the largest protest for racial justice in the nation’s history. With growing awareness of Black power and racial tension, the spring and summer of 1981 was marred by riots throughout England. The third part of the series focuses particularly on the riot in Brixton.
Along with a lot of phenomenal archival footage (and scored to some terrific reggae music from the period) this movie includes interviews with several survivors of the the New Cross fire and participants in the Brixton riots. There are also interviews with many white government officials and police officers, some of whom seem to have become more culturally sensitive as a result of their experience, and some who hang themselves with their own words.
I was not familiar with these events but they seemed sadly similar to racial history in the United States. I also noted some parallels with how British officials mismanaged The Troubles in Ireland and the Hillsborough disaster.
Title: Tongues Untied Release Date: October 26, 1989 Director: Marlon T. Riggs Production Company: Signifyin’ Works Summary/Review:
This is not your typical documentary, but more of an art piece. Through poetry, music, performance art, and film footage Marlon T. Riggs explores the experience of Black gay men in America. Racial discrimination, homophobia, and the masculine desire to repress emotions all conspire to silence Black gay men. This movie is all about letting them speak out their pain, anger, joy, and love. It’s really hard to describe this movie in words, but it is very powerful – and unflinching – and worth the watch.
Title: Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street Release Date: April 23, 2021 Director: Marilyn Agrelo Production Company: Macrocosm Entertainment | HBO Documentary Films | The Exchange
BondIt Media Capital | Citizen Skull Productions Summary/Review:
Based on the book of the same title, Street Gang is a look at the creation of the early days of Sesame Street. The advantage of a movie over a book is that it gets to incorporate a lot of memorable footage from Sesame Street as well as behind-the-scenes footage including a sequence of Muppet performers hilariously breaking character. The strength of the documentary is that it doesn’t credit one lone “genius” as being behind Sesame Street but recognizes that it was a collaborative effort. Producer Joan Ganz Cooney, early director Jon Stone, Muppet creator Jim Henson, composer Joe Raposo, and several other members of the cast and crew get their due recognition. The problem with this approach is that even with the focus basically on the first decade of the show, it feels a bit unfocused and incomplete.
I suppose a fully-satisfying documentary of Sesame Street would require a 10-part series, though. Nevertheless, I suspect that anyone who grew up watching Sesame Street (which is probably every American at this point) will appreciate the warm, nostalgic glow of this movie. In the meantime, I recommend watching I Am Big Bird and Being Elmo to complement this movie.
Title: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles Release Date: August 1, 2011 Director: Jon Foy Production Company: With Land of Missing Parts Productions Summary/Review:
You may have seen a strange message embedded in the asphalt when walking across the street in many American cities and even in South America:
TOYNBEE IDEA IN KUBRICK’S 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.
These Toynbee Tiles began appearing in the 1980s and have caused confusion and fascination to many. This documentary follows a group of individuals from Philadelphia who are brought together by the mystery of the Toynbee Tiles and investigate their origins. Their work turns up some strange clues, including a Philadelphia Inquirer article, a David Mamet play, and a shortwave radio convention.
Eventually their research leads fairly conclusively to a reclusive man who lives in South Philadelphia, who they wisely chose not to disturb. There’s a nice contradiction to a man who’s gone to great lengths to get his inscrutable message to the world not being interested in talking about it. The biggest a-ha moment in this movie is when they learn from neighbors that their #1 suspect had a car with missing floorboards meaning he could easily drop the Toynbee Tiles on the road without leaving his car.
Anyhow this is an interesting story about a strange phenomenon.
Title: The Queen Release Date: June 17, 1968 Director: Frank Simon Production Company: Grove Press Summary/Review:
There was no before.
Set at The 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest, this movie documents the preparation and competition for a drag queen competition in New York City. In this pre-Stonewall era, when homosexuality and transvestism were illegal in New York State, this feels like a very dangerous thing to do. And yet the mood among the participants feels surprisingly relaxed, apart from the catty in-fighting among some of the contestants. The only sign of an outside threat is when the contest’s organizer Flawless Sabrina says they need to find a hotel “hip enough” to welcome drag performers. Of course this scene also show’s Sabrina’s odd lack of organization in not reserving hotel rooms until the contestants had all arrived in New York.
The best parts of the movie are the more candid moments when the participants talk about their families and hometowns (where some of them found acceptance), whether or not they would undergo gender reassignment surgery, and encounters with the draft board. The obvious comparison for this documentary is Paris is Burning which takes place 20 years later and uptown in Harlem. There’s a largely unspoken racial dynamic in the mostly white Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest that comes to a head in the films conclusion when one of the Black contestants, Crystal LaBeija (who would later organize the house and ball culture documented in Paris is Burning) protests the crowning of Sabrina’s protege Rachel.
The movie offers a fascinating time capsule view and shows that a lot of familiar aspects of gay and drag culture go back a lot farther than I’d realized.