Title: Lost in La Mancha
Release Date: 30 August 2002
Director: Keith Fulton | Louis Pepe
Production Company: IFC Films
Following up on rewatching Hearts of Darkness recently, I had to revisit my other favorite Filmmaking Fiasco documentary, Lost in La Mancha. This film documents director Terry Gilliam’s attempt to film The Man Who Killed Don Quixote on location in Spain in 2000. Gilliam’s movie, then starring Johnny Depp, Jean Rochefort, and Vanessa Paradis, was the most expensive film project financed entirely within Europe. From the start, this film production is on a knife’s edge and needs everything to go right to keep the filming on time on on budget.
Things go very wrong. Location shooting is marred by NATO jets flying overhead and a severe thunderstorm that causes flash flooding that damages the set and equipment. But the biggest problem is when Rochefort suffers a herniated disc and is not well enough to return to filming. The insurers and the investors pull the plug and production on the film ceases. The final sequences of the film are heartbreaking to watch, especially since the film that was shot looks like it would be pretty good.
Much as Francis Ford Coppola is compared to Kurtz in Hearts of Darkness, Gilliam is compared with Don Quixote. The comparison may seem trite, but it really does fit. Apart from this being a good fiasco story, Lost in La Mancha is also one of the best behind-the-scenes documentaries of filmmaking. It’s really fascinating to see all the people and moving parts that need to work together in order to make a film, or in this case, to fail to make a film.
Title: Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan
Release Date: December 4, 2020
Director: Julien Temple
Production Company: Infinitum Nihil | Nitrate Film | Wild Atlantic Pictures | BBC Music | Warner Music | Screen Ireland
“People were always calling me a poet, but it’s very annoying to be called a poet when you’re a musician, because it means you’ve wasted your time writing the music.” – Shane MacGowan
This documentary is a straight-forward biography of singer/songwriter Shane MacGowan, most famous for his work with the Celtic punk band The Pogues, in that it covers his life from birth to the present. Straight-forward except that delightfully-weird animation that is used to recreate key moments of MacGowan’s life as well as what seems to be found footage to complement archival footage of MacGowan, his family, and The Pogues. MacGowan credits his childhood years on the family farm in Tipperary, Ireland with moulding is life. He started to drink at the age of 6, but also learned traditional music and lived on a land that still bore the scars of the Great Hunger and the Irish War of Independence.
The movie features original interviews with MacGowan and archival footage where he talks (mumbles, really) about his life and inspirations. There are also scenes of him in conversation with his friends actor Johnny Depp and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams. Interviews with Macgowan’s parents, his sister Siobhan, and wife Victoria Mary Clarke fill out the story. I would argue the main flaws of this film is that it is overly long and repetitive. If there’s one thing anyone knows about Shane MacGowan is that he drinks a lot, so that point didn’t need to be beaten to death at the expense of, say, learning more about his songwriting process. Still, this is an insightful film about a complex and talented man.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Release Date: March 2009
Director: [none listed]
Production Company: BBC Natural History Unit | Animal Planet
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.
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
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.
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, Wattstax, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Wild Africa, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, and Word Wars.
Title: The White Helmets
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Director: Orlando von Einsiedel
Production Company: Grain Media | Violet Films
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.
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
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.
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.
Release Date: October 26, 2011
Director: Gary Hustwit
Production Company: Swiss Dots
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.