Movie Review: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself (2013)


Title: Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself
Release Date: 22 May 2013
Director: Tom Bean & Luke Poling
Production Company: Joyce Entertainment | The Offices of SPECTRE
Summary/Review:

I enjoyed seeing George Plimpton’s tv appearances when I was a kid, and I read several of his books, and even saw him speak once when I was in college.  So I was delighted that the Brattle Theatre hosted a virtual screening of a documentary about Plimpton’s life.

George Plimpton was a tall, patrician-looking man from Manhattan’s Upper East Side and descended from a prominent New England family.  After World War II he founded and edited The Paris Review which became a leading literary journal publishing the top authors of the latter half of the 20th century.

And yet he is most famous for his experiments in participatory journalism, particularly in sports, where he pitched to Major League Baseball stars, played quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and served as goalkeeper for the Boston Bruins.  Outside of sports, he played a small role in a John Wayne Western, participated in a trapeze act, and played the triangle for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  His articles and books about these experiences provided an “everyman” perspective on the type of achievements that only a small number of people can do.

Plimpton’s charm and affable personality helped him find acceptance among the groups of professionals he covered as well as regular spots as a guest on talk and variety shows.  Interviewees in the movie say that Plimpton was a hard to get to know beneath his persona.  He had a love for celebrity that manifested itself in parties and literary salons, but he also hid considerable self-doubt about his own writing ability.  Plimpton was friends with the Kennedy family and traveled with Robert Kennedy on his 1968 presidential campaign.  Along with Rafer Johnson and Rosie O’Grier, he wrestled Kennedy’s assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the ground, and incident that Plimpton never wrote or spoke about publicly.

The movie shows the funny, charming side of Plimpton that made him the celebrity I remember from my childhood.  But it also peels back the public persona of someone with severe impostor’s syndrome about being among the literary luminaries of his time. His family seem to be embarrassed that Plimpton became a pitchman for various products, but it also showed his dedication to getting money to keep the Paris Review alive.

Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton as Himself is a good documentary that looks into the life of an unlikely celebrity and his times.

Rating: ***1/2

Blogging A to Z Challenge 2020 Round-up #AtoZChallenge


Well another Blogging A to Z Challenge has come and gone.  I went a little nuts and did two sets of A to Z challenges, both involving watching and reviewing movies, plus some bonus posts so I ended up writing 56 posts!

But before I toot my own horn, the A to Z Challenge is all about visiting other blogs and learning from the great wit and wisdom of our fellow bloggers.  Here are some of my favorite A to Z challenges!

Check out all of these blogs, read them, and leave comments if you didn’t get a chance to do so during the challenge.

And now, and index of my own posts from this years A to Z Challenges:

2020 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Revisiting My All-Time Favorite Movies

2020 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Movies, Part III

If you want to read more, check out my previous Blogging A to Z Challenges:

And dig deep into Panorama of the Mountains, by checking out my:

And, if you like Doctor Who, I have a whole ‘nother blog where I review Doctor Who stories across media: Epic Mandates.

Documentary Review: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1983) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “Z” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “Z” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and Zimbelism.

Title: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Release Date: December 23, 1983
Director: D. A. Pennebaker
Production Company: Miramax Films | MainMan | Bewlay Bros.
Summary/Review:

David Bowie finished off a world tour supporting The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars with this performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 3, 1973.  Pioneering D. A. Pennebaker and a small crew were on hand to film the show.  Cinematically, this film does not hold up to the likes of The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. Nevertheless, I appreciate the simplicity and the intimacy of this concert film.

Bowie is the focus of the film, whether he’s on stage or in his dressing room for a costume change.  It’s clear that he has a special connection with the audience, many of who are in Ziggy Stardust style makeup and costumes.  Assuming there are no overdubs in this film – and I don’t think there are – the band was on fire this night, especially Mark Ronson who has several excellent guitar solos.  Pianist Mike Garson lends a cocktail lounge jazz sound to several songs that works very well.  My only disappointment is that the band doesn’t perform “Starman” or “Life on Mars” in this set.

If you’re like me and weren’t alive to see what the big deal was regarding Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, this is a good way to found out.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Yellowstone (2009) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “Y” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous “Y” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Yellowstone: The World’s First National Park and You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

Title: Yellowstone
Release Date: March 2009
Director: [none listed]
Production Company: BBC Natural History Unit | Animal Planet
Summary/Review:

Yellowstone is a three-part nature documentary series filmed in Yellowstone National Park.  The episodes each focus on a season: winter, summer, and autumn (spring gets short shrift but since the snows don’t melt until June, maybe there is no spring).  I think if you drop some decent cinematographers with quality cameras into Yellowstone you’re guaranteed to get a gorgeous film, but nevertheless the visuals in this documentary are absolutely spectacular.  The theme of the series is “The Battle for Life” so it does veer toward overly dramatic narration.

Winter – Yellowstone’s geothermal features and landscape contribute to long, severe winters with heavy snowfall.  Wolves thrive in the winter as they are able to hunt weakened herds of elk. Bison use their heavy heads like a snowplow to search for edible grasses.  A red fox dives through the snow to capture mice.  And in my absolute favorite part, otters practically swim through the snow and use an opening in the ice created by geysers as a place to fish.

Summer – The season sees the emergence of a bear and her cubs. Other animals including pronghorn, bison, and wolves are also birthing young and keeping them alive in dangerous conditions. Cuthroat trout swim upstream to spawn and are hunted by otters and osprey.  Toward the end of the season, bear climb high in the mountains where they feed on army cutworm moths (like blue whales living on krill!).

Autumn – Trees devour their chlorophyll and erupt in gorgeous colors. Whitebark pine cones are spread with the help of squirrels, bears, and Clark’s nutcrackers.  Beavers repair their dams and stock up food for the winter.  Male elk and bighorn sheep fight among themselves for the right to mate with their respective females.  For the first time in the series, we also see humans as the elk and pronghorn migrate to lower ground outside of the park, with the wolves hot on their heels.  The wild animals have to face the dangers of hunters, motor vehicles, industry, and residential development, while ranchers are uneasy about wolves attacking their herds.

Rating: ****

Documentary Film Review: 20 Feet From Stardom (2013) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “X” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge.   It’s hard to find good documentary film starting with the letter X so I’m using the algebraic principle of substituting a number for the letter X. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Previous documentaries I’ve reviewed that actually start with X include Xavier and XXXY.

Title: 20 Feet From Stardom
Release Date: June 14, 2013
Director: Morgan Neville
Production Company: Tremolo Productions | Gil Friesen Productions
Summary/Review:

This movie focuses on the role of the background singer in popular and rock music from the 1960s to today. Particularly, it examines the role of black women – many with gospel music backgrounds – in redefining the sound and look of background singers.  The movie documents the artists who lent there vocals to numerous hit songs across genres with a special focus on Darlene Love, Judith Hill, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega and The Waters family.  While background singers get little to no credit for their contributions, and some people see it as a stepping stone to becoming a lead vocalist, the movie recognizes that particular skillset and artistry that goes into their singing.  In addition to interviewing many background singers, the movie also interviews rock stars like Mike Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Bette Midler, and Stevie Wonder who offer their kudos to the work of background singers on their songs.

Rating:  ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: The White Helmets (2016) #AtoZChallenge


This is my entry for “W” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “W” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Waking Sleeping Beauty, WattstaxWhat Happened, Miss Simone?, Wild AfricaThe Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Word Wars.

 

TitleThe White Helmets
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Production Company: Grain Media | Violet Films
Summary/Review:

This short but harrowing documentary  focuses on a group of volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defence – known as The White Helmets – in the war-torn city of Aleppo. The organization was formed in 2014 in response to Syrian government forces and their Russian allies targeting civilian populations. Their main responsibility is to help recover people trapped in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, saving the lives of thousands of people across Syria, as well as recovering the bodies of the dead.

The movie provides a mix of hope and humanity at the volunteers who put their lives on the line to rescue their neighbors, mixed with the bitterness that this cruel war never should have happened in the first place.  A key part of the film features the rescue of a week-old baby that was trapped under debris for 16 hours.  Later we see the White Helmets reuniting with the “miracle baby” as a healthy and happy toddler.

For part of the film, the volunteers we are following go across the border to Turkey for more in-depth training.  There they observe the strangeness that comes from finding peace and quiet just by crossing a line on a map. While they are there, one of the volunteers also learns that his brother died in an attack and they all deal with the grief and guilt of that loss.

The movie is heartbreaking and hopeful and worth watching to learn about the horrors still being faced in part of our world.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Visages, Villages (2017) #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. Previous “V” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Vernon, Florida and Virunga.

Title: Visages, Villages
Release Date: June 28, 2017
Director: Agnès Varda and JR
Production Company: Cine Tamaris | JRSA | Rouge International | Arte France Cinema | Arches Films
Summary/Review:

This movie is made by Agnès Varda, a movie director of the French New Wave of films such as Cleo, from 5 to 7 (1962), and a street artist named JR. Together they travel through France in a van which includes a photo booth that can print out large-scale photographs.  They meet with local people, take their photographs, and then paste them on the walls of various buildings.  Sites include mostly-abandoned miners’ houses (where they past up images of miners and the last remaining occupant), an organic goat farm, a chemical factory (where the workers from different shifts get to be featured side by side), a shipping port (where the wives of three dockworkers are depicted on a stack of shipping containers) and the ruins of a German bunker in Normandy (where they put up a photo Varda took in the 1960s of a colleague who is now deceased).

The movie has a populist feel as they meet ordinary French people, learn about their lives, and celebrate them.  It is also a sweet depiction of their friendship, especially when they meet JR’s grandmother and when JR comforts Varda after they attempt to meet her old friend Jean-Luc Godard, but Godard plays a trick on them and doesn’t show.  A recurring theme is the eyes, as Varda complains about how JR always hides his eyes behind sunglasses, while Varda is losing her vision.

This movie is quirky and sweet and sprawling, and its hard to describe what it’s really “about,” but I really enjoyed watching it.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Urbanized (2011) #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. Previous “U” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Unforgivable Blackness and Unrest.

Title: Urbanized
Release Date: October 26, 2011
Director: Gary Hustwit
Production Company: Swiss Dots
Summary/Review:

This movie is a quick jaunt through cities around the world to discuss contemporary projects in urban designs from the director of Helvetica.  This includes bus rapid transit and bike lanes in Bogota, Colombia, safer routes to walk in the Khayelitsha township in South Africa, the High Line project in New York City, participatory design of low-income housing in Chile, and community gardens in a depopulated Detroit.

The movie also focuses on some bad urban design such as the inhuman scale of modernist Brasília, Brazil or the misguided attempts to rebuild New Orleans’ Ninth Ward with Southern California style bungalows.  The movie takes a moment to sum up the famous battle of New York City planner Robert Moses and urbanist Jane Jacobs. And lest one think that all urban planning is positive and welcomed, the movie concludes with a conflict in Stuttgart, Germany over a plan to redevelop a railyard and train station that received intense opposition from local residents.

As someone with an interest in urbanism, most of this movie was very familiar to me, but it could serve as a good introduction to novice audiences.  The way the movie skips from project to project means that it has no real focus or thesis statement.  But it also resembles the urban experience in that there’s a little of everything together getting mixed together and sharing ideas.

Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: The Thin Blue Line (1988) #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 13th, Titicut Follies, Tower, and Trekkies.

Title: The Thin Blue Line
Release Date: August 25, 1988
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: American Playhouse | Channel 4 Television Corporation | Third Floor Productions
Summary/Review:

This is the third documentary movie directed by Errol Morris after Gates of Heaven (1978) and Vernon, Florida (1981).  Like its predecessors, the movie is largely made up of interviews with various people edited together to tell a story.  The production values are much glossier and the soundtrack is scored by Phillip Glass.

A big change in this movie is the use of dramatic reenactments as the central crime in the movie is recreated several times from different perspectives. Typically, I cringe at dramatic reenactments and this movie has been credited (blamed for?) introducing them into hacky true crime tv shows from the 1990s to the present.  But under the direction of Morris, the reenactments appear more like art film shorts, and the way they show different people’s interpretation of the events has lead to the movie being compared to Rashomon.

The movie focuses on the murder of a Dallas police officer at a traffic stop in 1976, and the conviction of Randall Adams for the crime.  The movie’s thesis is that Adams is innocent of the murder, and examines the weak evidence against him while hypothesizing why the criminal justice system persisted in their case against him.  Interviewees include Adams, David Harris (the actual murderer), witnesses, judges, lawyers, and detectives.  Morris not only made an intriguing documentary, but the attention to the case lead to Texas overturning the conviction of Adams the following year.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: Sacco and Vanzetti (2006) #atozchallenge


Title: Sacco and Vanzetti
Release Date: April 6, 2006
Director: Peter Miller
Production Company: Willow Pond Films
Summary/Review:

This documentary tells this history of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, a pair of Italian immigrants active in the anarchist movement who were convicted and executed for murder in Massachusetts in the 1920s.  The movie is Ken Burns style with lots archival photographs and film and modern day experts talking about the case, including Mary Anne Trasciatti, Howard Zinn, Studs Terkel, Nunzio Pernicone, Arlo Guthrie, and David Kaiser. Tony Shalhoub and John Turturo provide the voices of Sacco and Vanzetti.

I’m familiar with the case but learned a lot of new things from this movie:

  • the men became anarchists due to sympathy towards the plight of poor and working people, although they were actually more prosperous themselves than typical Italian immigrants of the time
  • the defense lawyer Fred Moore took on prominent leftist labor cases and stirred up a lot of publicity around the case which provoked a lot of retaliatory anger from the justice system
  • their case was tried at Norfolk County Courthouse in Dedham, which is still in use
  • Judge Webster Thayer was very prejudicial and allowed the prosecution to allow evidence of Sacco and Vanzetti’s anarchist ideology and WWI draft resistance even though they did not pertain to the trial
  • at least one of the bullets presented as evidence in the case was not actually one found at the scene of the crime but fired later from Sacco’s pistol
  • the witnesses who placed Sacco and Vanzetti at the scene of the crime were unreliable at best
  • motions for retrial were denied by Judge Thayer, the same judge who tried their case
  • In 1925, Celestino Medeiros confessed to the murder.  Thayer still denied a retrial.
  • despite their names forever linked together, Sacco and Vanzetti were isolated from one another for the entire 7 years of the case.

The issues of how the United States mistreats immigrants and fails to uphold civil liberties for all remains a relevant issue in our time.  The 100th anniversary of the arrest of Sacco & Vanzetti will occur on May 5th.  If you are unaware of their case or want to learn more about it, this documentary is a good place to start.

Rating: ***1/2