Documentary Movie Review: Harlan County, USA (1976) #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 29HeimaHelveticaHieronymus Bosch: Touched by the Devil, High SchoolHillsboroughThe Historic Pubs of Dublin, and The Hollywood Librarian.

Title: Harlan County, USA
Release Date: October 15, 1976
Director: Barbara Kopple
Production Company: Cabin Creek Films
Summary/Review:

I have an affinity for coal miners because my grandfather and his father and brothers all worked for mining companies in Pennsylvania.  My grandfather never went down in the mines but worked as a coal breaker which made him all the more vulnerable to inhaling dust and coal particles.  Coal miners, whether below the ground or in the processing facilities, face a great risk of instant death and horrible injuries. Those who make it through okay will inevitably suffer respirator problems like black lung.  And yet the work of a coal miner could also offer great dignity and pride.

In the 1970s in Harlan County, Kentucky, over 180 coal miners from the Brookside Mine joined the United Mine Workers of America and went on strike against the Duke Power Company.  Young filmmaker Barbara Kopple (who later directed Miss Sharon Jones!) filmed the strike over the course of its 11 months, including planning meetings, pickets, and conflicts with company’s “gun thugs” that lead to violence. The protests spread to New York where UMWA picketers inform Wall Street investors about Duke Power’s mistreatment of workers, and one of them talks with a progressive New York City cop. A particularly strong part of this film is the organization of Harlan County’s women, mostly miners’ wives, who play a significant role in the strike. Lois Scott stands out as a women who uses encouragement and shame to keep people motivated on the end goal of the strike.

In addition to the linear narrative of the strike, Kopple also includes historical footage from Harlan County coal mines and earlier labor conflicts.  The struggle of miners in Appalachia in general is seen in coverage of the Farmington Mine explosion in West Virginia in 1968 that left 78 miners dead.  There was conflict even within the UMWA.  In the 1960s, Tony Boyle became president of the union, but many rank-and-file miners saw him as too cozy with mine owners.  He was challenged by Jock Yablonski in 1969, and despite winning reelection had Yablonski and several of his family murdered a month later. At the time of the Harlan County strike, Boyle had been replaced by a former miner, Arnold Miller, and was convicted for the murder of the Yablonski.

Apart from some informative text on the screen, this movie has no narration.  Instead the miners tell their story and the stories of those who came before them.  The story is also told through song, as the soundtrack features several folk songs including many specifically about Harlan County.  At one point, Florence Reece appears to sing a new version of her famous song “Which Side Are You On?” which she originally wrote for the Harlan County War in 1931.

This is a beautiful, moving, and enraging movie that tells a story that’s all too familiar through our nation’s history.

Rating: *****

Documentary Movie Review: Gates of Heaven (1978) #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 Gnomist, Gimme Shelter, Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Rules the World and Grey Gardens.

Title: Gates of Heaven
Release Date: October 1978
Director: Errol Morris
Production Company: Gates of Heaven
Summary/Review:

This was Errol Morris’ first movie and features several people associated with the pet cemetery business.  Much like his second film Vernon, Florida, which I watched a couple of years ago, the movie is made up entirely of interviews of various people, edited together to build a story.  There is no narration and only an occasional establishing shot and newspaper headline to provide context.

The first part of the movie focuses on Floyd “Mac” McClure who attempts to fulfill his lifelong dream of opening a pet cemetery in Los Altos, CA.  He’s contrasted with a man who runs a rendering plant the traditional destination of dead animals – including beloved pets – where they are turned to tallow.  After McClure’s cemetery fails financially, the 450 animal bodies are exhumed and moved to Bubbling Well pet cemetery in Napa, CA.  This much more successful pet cemetery continues to operate through today under the operation of the Harberts family.  Interviews with the Harberts include two sons, one a dreamy musician and one a practical businessman with experience in the insurance industry.  The film also includes interviews with people talking about the pets they had buried in the cemeteries.

The biggest takeaway from this movie is the wide gap between the philosophy and attitudes of the people interviewed.  At one extreme are the people deeply sincere about there passions,whether it be their pets, their desire to have a place to inter deceased pets, or to play guitar.  At the other are the businessmen who are very crass about their capitalist interests of making a back, whether it be by rendering or burying animals.  The one thing that all these people have in common is an unawareness of how they may come off to other people.

Roger Ebert considered Gates of Heaven to be one of the top ten movies of all time.  Maybe there was something about seeing it as an underground movie in the 1970s when there were no other documentaries like it around had a mesmerizing effect, but I don’t see it as great as all that.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into the human experience through an unusual topic.  And it made Werner Herzog eat his shoe.

Rating: ***

Note: I could not find a trailer for Gates of Heaven but the entire movie is on YouTube should you be interested.

 

 

Documentary Movie Review: The Farthest — Voyager in Space (2017) #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 F is for Fake, 56 Up, Finding Vivian MaierFour Days in Octoberand Frank Lloyd Wright.

Title: The Farthest — Voyager in Space
Release Date: August 23, 2017
Director: Emer Reynolds
Production Company: Crossing the Line and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Production for PBS
Summary/Review:

I’ve always been fascinated by the Voyager program, and remember the excitement in my childhood each time the Voyager spacecraft would fly-by a new planet.  The Voyager program began in the 1960s at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to take advantage of the unique alignment of the Outer Planets that allowed for a “grand tour.”  Passing each planet provided a gravity assist that propelled the probes toward the next planet and eventually out of the solar system.

The documentary features interviews with key figures from NASA and JPL, archival photographs and film, and animated reenactments of the Voyager journeys.  Voyager is responsible for some remarkable discoveries but is famous for being a “message in a bottle” to extraterrestrial intelligence, including the Golden Record with a selection of music and greetings from the people of the Earth. In 1990, at the insistence of Carl Sagan, the Voyager I camera was turned back toward the solar system and took a series of “family portraits” including one of the Earth appearing as a pale blue dot in a ray of sunshine.

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “D” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “D” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Dark DaysThe Day the Series StoppedThe Day the Series StoppedDecoding Desire, Dear Mr. WattersonDolphinsand Don’t You Forget About Me.

Title: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson 
Release Date: October 6, 2017
Director: David France
Production Company: Public Square Films
Summary/Review:

Marsha P. Johnson was a New York City entertainer and activist, who, among other things, participated in the Stonewall Uprising, was a member of the Gay Liberation Front, co-founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), modeled for Andy Warhol, and participated in ACT-UP.  Through her life she is identified as a drag queen, transvestite, or transgender person and even her family use female and male pronouns interchangeably.  Her charm and easygoing nature made her a beloved figure in New York’s LGBTQ community and earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”  Shortly after the Pride festival in 1992, her body was found in the Hudson River.

The police declared her death a suicide and quickly closed the case, but many in the LGBTQ did not believe Marsha was suicidal and suspected she was murdered. As the movie documents, transgender people are murdered at an inordinate rate, even to this day,  with the police failing to investigate the crimes and when someone is actually charged with the offense they receive light sentences. The main focus of this movie is activist Victoria Cruz of the Anti-Violence Project carrying out her own investigation of this cold case 25 years after Marsha’s death.

The story of Marsha P. Johnson is a story that parallels the Gay Liberation movement in New York.  Key figures who feature prominently in the movie are Randy Wicker and Sylvia Rivera. Wicker is a gay activist and writer who was Johnson’s housemate for many years. His opposition to a Pride street festival run by the Mafia has contribute to a theory that Martha was killed by the mob. Rivera co-founded STAR with Johnson in 1970 to provide support for homeless drag queens, gay youth, and trans women. She was outspoken against the gay rights movement being dominated by white, cisgender men who left out transgender people and people of color in order to assimilate with mainstream society.  In the documentary we learn she left New York City after speaking out at a 1973 rally, but returned after Marsha Johnson’s death.  In archival footage, Sylvia Rivera is interviewed while living in a homeless encampment on the Hudson River in the 1990s and suffering from alcoholism.  She is able to go cold turkey with the help of friends, and returns to activism, receiving global recognition for being in the vanguard of LGBTQ equality.

I like that I learned a lot about important activists like Cruz, Rivera, and Wicker and others in this movie. It is a bit disappointing that there isn’t as much about Marsha P. Johnson in the movie.  But then, I guess that reflects reality. Johnson was taken from this world at a young age and is not here to tell her story.  This is a movie that like many a good documentary will make you a little bit smarter, but also a little bit sadder.

Rating: ***1/2

Documentary Movie Review: The Celluloid Closet (1996) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “C” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “C” documentaries I’ve reviewed include Cane Toads: An Unnatural HistoryThe Case of the Grinning Cat,  Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Ceasefire Massacre, The Central Park Five, The Clash: Westway to the World,  and Constantine’s Sword.

TitleThe Celluloid Closet
Release Date: February 15, 1996
Director: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman
Production Company: Channel Four Films | HBO Pictures
Summary/Review:

This documentary traces the history of homosexuality as it is depicted in Hollywood films.  As early as the silent film era, stock characters of sissy men appeared in films for comic effect, although there were some positive representations of gay and lesbian people.  The institution of the Production Code included censoring “sexual deviancy” that put the kibosh on any acknowledgement of homosexuality.

Filmmakers instead used coded characters to slip gay and lesbian ideas past the censors. Movies of this period include Ben-Hur (1959), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Rebecca (1940), Red River (1948), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Rope (1948), Some Like it Hot (1959), and Young Man With a Horn (1950). I never knew that Gore Vidal worked on the script for Ben-Hur and wrote in a gay subtext, which makes the fact that I watched the movie at my Catholic elementary school hilarious.

By the 1960s, homosexuality was once again acknowledged in film but gay and lesbian characters were often tragic figures who inevitably died by the end of the movie, usually by their own hand. Stereotypically homosexual characters were also villains in many movies.  Advise and Consent (1962), The Children’s Hour (1961), The Fox (1967), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Vanishing Point (1971), and Walk on the Wild Side (1962) are all discussed as examples of this problematic approach to homosexuality in film.

The Boys in the Band (1970) is recognized as the first mainstream film to depict gay characters in a positive light.  It was directed by William Friedkin whose later film Cruising (1980) was protested by gay rights activists for perpetuating the stigma of gay men as villains.  Cabaret (1972) and Making Love (1982) are also highlighted for positive depictions of gay characters.  Nevertheless, homosexuality continues to be coded in Hollywood films, derogatory terms like “faggot” are used indiscriminately in movies, and big name actors avoid being cast in roles as homosexual characters.  Philadelphia (1993) is recognized as an advancement for featuring likable star actor Tom Hanks in the role of a gay man with AIDS, although it’s noted that his character still dies at the end.

A frustrating aspect of this movie is that none of the interviewees are ever identified onscreen, nor are the titles of the movies from a good portion of the clips that are shown. I do know that Lily Tomlin narrates the movie and people interviewed include Tony Curtis (commenting on his roles in Some Like it Hot and Spartacus), Arthur Laurents, Armistead Maupin (who also wrote the script for the narration), Whoopi Goldberg, Harvey Fierstein, Gore Vidal, Shirley MacLaine, Barry Sandler, Tom Hanks, and Susan Sarandon.

Hollywood has continued to make progress on gay and lesbian representation since this documentary was released 24 years ago, but remains frustratingly slow in depicting LGBT people in the full range of human experience.  Consider recent Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney films which include scenes with extremely minor gay and lesbian characters, never the leads, but the studios expect to be celebrated for their progress. One thing that comes through in this film is that gay and lesbian viewers had to watch the coded depictions in movies and translate them to their own experience.  Harvey Fierstein makes a good point that it’s time for straight audiences to do some translation.

Rating: ***1/2

 

Documentary Movie Review: Bill Cunningham New York (2011) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “B” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “B” documentaries I’ve reviewed are BabiesBallerinaBarbosa: The Man Who Made Brazil Cry,  Being Elmo, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, and Boredom.

Title: Bill Cunningham New York
Release Date: March 16, 2011
Director: Richard Press
Production Company: First Thought Films
Summary/Review:

The movie starts with a man photographing passing pedestrians on a street corner in Midtown Manhattan.  It’s a bit creepy, and not too far into the movie a pair of women yell at him to stop. We learn the man is a fashion photographer for the New York Times who publishes collages of street fashion as well from fundraising soirees and models strutting down the catwalk.  But as we get to know the humble man behind the camera, all the preconceived notions of fashion photographer.

Cunningham is not at all fashionable himself, consistently wearing the same blue jacket as he bikes around Manhattan with his camera. He lives modestly in a studio apartment within Carnegie Hall filled with filing cabinets of his photographs (part of the movie documents Carnegie Hall management evicting Cunningham and other aging artists to make more room for revenue-producing office space).  He never accepts payment or even food and drink at the events he covers.  He does try to photograph celebrities, but focuses on photographing fashionable clothing that captures his eye.  And he never mocks the everyday people he photographs, instead celebrating their fashion sense. Indeed he’s something of an anthropologist documenting fashion trends that emerge from the populist.

Every Blogging A to Z Challenge I’ve done on documentary movies has included one on a street photographer – previously Finding Vivian Maier and Zimbelism – and they’re all complex and a bit odd people. I’m not terribly interested in fashion photography but do feel I learned to appreciate something about it through Bill Cunningham’s unique life story.

Rating: ***

Documentary Movie Review: Apollo 11 (2019) #atozchallenge


Note: I wasn’t planning on doing documentaries again for this year’s A to Z Challenge, but since I suddenly found myself with more free time at home, I decided why not.  Unlike my main A to Z posts, which were scheduled ahead of time, I’ll be doing these as I go along with the chance I might miss some along away.  Nevertheless, enjoy your bonus A to Z content.


This is my entry for “A” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “A” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Ai Weiwei: Never SorryAfrica: The SerengetiAmerican Experience: Blackout,  American Experience: Into the Amazon,, American Experience: Walt Disney and Amy.

TitleApollo 11
Release Date: March 1, 2019
Director: Todd Douglas Miller
Production Company: CNN Films | Statement Pictures
Summary/Review:

In this big-budget, science-fiction adventure, three men leave their planet and travel to another world for the first time, with thousands of people supporting them back home.  And it’s all real.

This movie is built entirely with original footage from the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission to Mars, including previously unreleased 70 mm footage that is awe-inspiring.  There is no narration or retrospective interviews, just descriptions from the contemporary dialogue of the astronauts, NASA employees, and news media.  Simple animations appear on the screen before all of the Apollo 11 mission’s major maneuvers, and countdown clocks build up the tension.  All of this is scored to an incredible soundtrack of electronic music using only instruments that were available in 1969.

As a space exploration buff, I may be biased, but this is one of the most exciting, beautiful, and well-edited documentaries I’ve ever seen. I hope at some point I can see it again on a big screen and be fully-immersed in this spectacular film.

Rating: *****

Movie Review: 63 Up (2019)


Title: 63 Up
Release Date: June 4, 2019
Director: Michael Apted
Production Company: Albert+ Sustainable production | ITV Studios | Shiver
Summary/Review:

It’s December 2019, and I’m thrilled to see the 9th installment in a legendary movie saga on the big screen!  No, not Star Wars, that’s next week.  This is the Up Series, a documentary focusing on the lives of a group of British individuals starting with the a tv special produced by Granada Television for ITV in 1964 called Seven Up!  The premise of the series is based on the Jesuit motto “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” and the original filmmakers thought that the rigid class structure of England would show that the futures of these children would be locked in at 7-years-old.

Director Michael Apted has interviewed the participants every year since while wholesale social changes have gone around them. Their lives depicted in this interviews over time show things that could’ve never been predicted from their 7-year-old selves, and yet a lot of the character established early in their lives shines through over time.

As the participants approach retirement age in 63 Up, the focus of the interviews naturally focuses on subjects like grandchildren, declining health, and mortality.  Lynn, on of my favorite participants because she spent much of her life working as a devoted children’s librarian in London’s East End, died since the last movie was made. Apted interviews her children to reflect upon her life.  Nick, another favorite, after growing up on a farm in Yorkshire has lived much of his adult life in Wisconsin as a physics professor.  He is suffering from throat cancer and is visibly weakened.  He may not make it to 70 Up.

There have been some big events in Britain in the past 7 years, and several participants are asked about Brexit.  In general, almost every participant mentions growing inequality and the sense that for the first time the next generation will not have it better than their own.  The movie is not all bummers though as almost all the participants take the time to reflect on positive accomplishments in their life, the love of family, and even the connections they’ve made with other participants.

Jackie is another participant I always like in this movies, especially in the way that she’s frank about calling out Michael Apted for his shortcomings in making the movies.  She correctly notes Apted’s blindspot regarding feminism and women entering the workplace in greater numbers, while focusing on domestic questions.  In 63 Up, Jackie admits to really liking Apted. “I only told him off, I didn’t kill him!”

The screening of 63 Up I saw at Landmark Kendall Square Cinemas in Cambridge was followed by a short Q&A with Apted himself.  At 78 years old, he is looking frail and seemed to have diminishing mental faculties.  He noted himself that it would be unlikely he would be able to make 70 Up, but he hopes that someone else would carry on the project. Nevertheless, it was great to be in the presence of the famed director and hear him speak about his experience working on this great experiment in humanism.

Rating: *****

Related post: Movie Review: 56 Up

Movie Review: Zimbelism (2015) #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.

Title: Zimbelism
Release Date: September 2015
Director:  Jean François Gratton and Matt Zimbel
Production Company: Bunbury Films | Ready to Shoot Studio
Summary/Review:

This biographical documentary focuses on the life and work of freelance photographer George Zimbel.  From the 1950s to the present, Zimbel has taken evocative photographs of celebrities and ordinary people.  Some of his most famous photographs feature Marilyn Monroe, John and Jackie Kennedy on the campaign trail, Harry Truman in his retirement years, and street scenes from gritty old New Orleans.

The Monroe photographs are particularly interesting since they are from a promotional event for the Seven Year Itch with the famous moment of Monroe standing over a subway grate. Zimbel’s photographs are different in that he stands back a bit and captures the sea of other photographers taking their photos, as well as capturing Monroe in a quiet moment thinking to herself between photoshoots.  Zimbel’s street photography of ordinary people is also quite excellent.

One flaw with this movie is that it’s framed with the reading of a series of letters Zimbel exchanged with The New York Times regarding the ownership of a print of a photo of the Kennedys.  The long, snarky letters add nothing to the story and both Zimbel and the Times come of sounding like petty jerks. Oh, and Zimbel really hates digital photography.  He’s entitled to that belief, but until I have the money and space for my own darkroom, I’ll stick with my digital camera.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Finding Vivian Maier tells the story of a street photographer who, unlike Zimbel, received absolutely no recognition during her lifetime.

Source: Hoopla

Rating: **1/2


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies
U: Unforgivable Blackness
V: Virunga
W: Waking Sleeping Beauty
X: Xavier
Y: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

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.

Movie Review: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004) #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.

Title: You Can’t Be Neutral ona Moving Train
Release Date: June 18, 2004
Director: Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller
Production Company: First Run Features
Summary/Review:

This biographical documentary covers the basic moments in the life of historian and activist Howard Zinn:

  • grew up in working class Brooklyn
  • first job at Brooklyn Navy Yard where he’s exposed to labor activists and socialists
  • enlists during WWII to fight facism
  • disturbed by being part of a napalm bomb attack on a German holdout in France that had no strategic importance, only a demonstration of the USA’s new weaponry
  • after the war becomes a professor at Spelman College
  • supports students active in Civil Rights protests and becomes and advisor for SNCC
  • after fired by Spelman, joins the faculty at Boston University
  • becomes a leader in the movement against the Vietnam War
  • publishes A People’s History of the United States to offer perspectives from oppressed people on the nation’s history
  • also focuses on his personal life including his long marriage with Roslyn Shechte

The film follows the typical format of interviews with Zinn and others like Alice Walker and Daniel Berrigan, mixed with archival photographs and video.  It’s a good introduction to Zin if you don’t have time to read his books.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

Even this is a movie about Howard Zinn, he has a way of redirecting the discussion to the front line activists in whatever cause it’s being discussed.  It’s a good lesson in using one’s talents and privileges to elevate others.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

Read the autobiography this is based on, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.  And read some Zinn classics like A People’s History of the United States and A People’s History of American Empire.

Source: Hoopla

Rating: ***


2019 Blogging A to Z Challenge – Documentary Films

A: Amy
B: Being Elmo
C: Central Park Five
D: Dear Mr. Watterson
E: The Endless Summer
F: F for Fake
G: Grey Gardens
H: High School
I: Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice
J: Jiro Dreams of Sushi
K: Kon-Tiki
L: The Last Waltz
M: Man With a Movie Camera
N: Nanook of the North
O: Obit.
P: Pelotero
Q: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
R: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan
S: Soundtrack for a Revolution
T: Titicut Follies
U: Unforgivable Blackness
V: Virunga
W: Waking Sleeping Beauty
X: Xavier

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.