Movie Review: Heima (2007)


Title:  Heima
Release Date:  5 October 2007
Director: Dean DeBlois
Rating: ****

Review:

Not your average concert film.  Sigur Rós returns to Iceland after a world tour (the title means “At Home”) and conducts a thank you tour of their island nation.  The band performs in community halls, an abandoned factory, on hillsides, and on a dam where protestors are encamped.  The cinematography and the editing are so gorgeous, pairing the music with the Icelandic landscape and the people in the audience (you get the sense that a good portion of the Icelandic population appear in this film). A local choir, brass band, and traditional chanter join in the performance to add to the Icelandic cultural milleiu.   It’s really a movie one can immerse oneself in and get a sense of a country’s national identity.

 

Movie Review: The 1964 World’s Fair (1996)


TitleThe 1964 World’s Fair
Release Date: 1996
Director: Rich Hanley
Summary/Review:

The World’s Fairs in New York have long fascinated me, growing up hearing the stories from my parents and playing among the ruins in Flushing Meadow Park as a child.  This light documentary narrated by Judd Hirsch captures the wonder of the fair through rich archival footage and interviews with people who were there.  It is not an uncritical film, as the Fair did have many contradictions:

  • It claimed to be a vision of the future yet it more reflected the recent past of the 1950s than the changing times of the 1960s, completely ignoring environmental and racial justice issues.
  • It was the last World’s Fair to take place in a major US city, yet it was designed to emulate and accommodate suburban sprawl.
  • The fair welcomed representation of newly independent nations, but also was dominated by corporations that would recolonize them.
  • The fair failed to attract the expected number of visitors, yet was often crowded with long lines.

I think the movie could’ve used more interviews with a more diverse group of fair participants.  For example, there are lots of Black fairgoers in the archival footage, but none were found to interview.  Similarly, they could’ve looked for someone who worked on the fair or protested against it for a less rosey-eyed view than the interviewees who remember having a good time there as a teen.

Still the World’s Fair had a lot of charms, and though the planners did not intend to cater to teenagers, I can see how it became a popular hangout.  There are also amusing bits like the quote about the fair being designed by “Michelangelo and Disney” and the unexpected popularity of Belgian waffles.  There are also many shots of the early days of my beloved Shea Stadium.  It’s a good view of fleeting time and place in New York history.

Rating: **1/2

 

Movie Review: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29


TitleHarvard Beats Yale 29-29
Release Date: 2008
Director: Kevin Rafferty
Summary/Review:

This football documentary has an intriguing title in that it gives away the final score, yet it also fibs about one side winning a tie game.  It’s a no-frills sports documentary where tv footage of the actual game is interspliced with interviews with dozens of the players who participated in the game.  For Ivy League colleges, it is interesting that many of the players had working class backgrounds.  On the other hand, one team had a player who was roommates with George W. Bush and the other team had a player rooming with Al Gore.  The latter is famed actor Tommy Lee Jones.  The interviews touch on the Vietnam War, student protests, and the sexual revolution, but largely this is the story of men in their 60s reflecting on how one exhilarating moment affected their entire lives.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: I Am Big Bird (2014)


TitleI Am Big Bird
Release Date: 2014
Director: Dave LaMattina & Chad N. Walker
Summary/Review:

This sweet documentary tells the story of the life, career, and artistry of Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.  The film includes a wealth of archival footage and home movies balanced with interviews with Spinney, his wife Debbie, and his colleagues (I particularly like the Muppet Wranglers).  While a celebration of his art, the film also reveals Spinney’s struggles with anxiety and depression, as well as his isolation from the other Muppet crew (something that is heightened because he is uniquely hidden within his characters Big Bird and Oscar).  At the age of 82, Spinney is the last of the original Muppeteers still working with Sesame Street.  If you love Big Bird and Oscar, you’ll love this movie
Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Night James Brown Saved Boston (2008)


Title: The Night James Brown Saved Boston
Release Date: 2008
Director: David Leaf
Summary/Review:

April 5, 1968. Cities across the United States are in turmoil as grief and anger over the murder of Martin Luther King leads too violence and rioting. In Boston, city officials considered canceling a scheduled concert by James Brown, but instead Mayor Kevin White is convinced to allow the show go on as a memorial to Dr. King and broadcast it live on WGBH.  The documentary begins with a good background on Brown, King, and Boston leading into 1968. Then there’s extensive concert footage intercut with interviews with people who were there that night (including Mayor White but sadly not James Brown) as well as commentators like Cornel West and Al Sharpton. The biggest moment of tension is when some concert-goers rush the stage and Brown himself asks the police to stand down and the fans to return to the floor. Other than that, the music is spectacular and reports come in that people in Boston are staying home to watch the live broadcast and then the immediate rebroadcast.  And by the way, the WGBH crew having no idea how to produce a pop concert for television is pretty hilarious, but they end up doing a decent job. The film concludes with the effect on James Brown becoming a more vocal leader of the Black American community in the ensuing years. This an excellent document of a moment in Boston history as well as a fantastic concert film. 

Rating: ****

Movie Reviews: A Couple of Short Films 


Title:  World of Tomorrow
Release Date: 2015
Director:  Don Hertzfeldt
Summary/Review:

This animated short depicts a future when the personalities of people can be downloaded into clones. And a clone travels through time to visit the original person when she’s a toddler.  The depictions of the people in this animated short are childish, crude, and reminiscent of Hyperbole and a Half but set against surreal backgrounds. And the toddler voice behind Emily Prime is just perfect. It’s the type of movie that makes you laugh and then makes you say “hmm…”

Rating: ****

 

Title: The Gnomist
Release Date: 2015
Director: Sharon Liese
Summary/Review:

If you want to cry for 17 minutes this movie will do the job. This documentary tells the story of fairy homes appearing mysteriously in a forest in Overland Park, KS that end up helping the grieving process of a family that lost a three year old child to cancer.   The story of the people behind the fairy houses are equally heartbreaking. 
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Keith Richards: Under the Influence


Title: Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Release Date: 2015
Director: Morgan Neville
Summary/Review:

This Netflix documentary follows Keith Richards as he works in the studio on new songs and travels through America to sites connected with American music. Theses scenes are intercut with archival footage of Richards and the Stones. The influences in this movie are musical – Blues, Country, & Reggae – and Richards talks about his love for music and how he creates his own. Musicians talking about music is the best kind of music documentary. It has all the joy and none of the bitterness of Richard’s autobiography.  As an added bonus, Tom Waits appears for a few scene-stealing interviews.
Rating: ****

Movie Review: Ballerina (2006)


Title: Ballerina
Release Date: 2006
Director: Bertrand Normand
Summary/Review:
This documentary documents a couple of years in the lives and careers of five women dancers in the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. These ballerinas – Diana Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Ulyana Lopatkina, Alina Somova, &
Evgenia Obraztsova – are celebrities in ballet-crazed Russia. Each represents a different point in the career from a recently hired graduate of the grueling Vaganova Ballet Academy to a member of the corps de ballet getting her first solos to an experienced dancer venturing out to perform with companies abroad and a ballerina regaining her skills after being sidelined with a foot injury for two years. There are some creepy aspects to this movie such as young girls being selected for Vaganova simply on their body type and the dictatorial behavior of instructors and directors. The ballerinas are guarded in their interviews with one stating that she can only really express herself in her dance. So it is no surprise that the best parts of this documentary are the dance performances on stage, and even more so in rehearsal.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: 30 For 30: “The Day The Series Stopped” (2014)


Title: 30 for 30: “The Day The Series Stopped”
Release Date: 12 October 2014
Director: Ryan Fleck
Production Co: Electric City Entertainment
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | Sports
Rating: ***

Review: The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary series takes us back to October 1989 when the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s was interrupted by the Loma Prieta Earthquake.  Archival footage and interviews with players, fans, and sportscasters show how it slowly dawned on the people at Candlestick Park that the shaking and buckling they experienced was in fact the worst earthquake in over 80 years and having devastating effects on the teams’ home cities.  There are some interesting effects in the movie such as rewinding to the time of the earthquake to tell stories from different perspectives such as one Giants’ employee who was climbing a light tower in the outfield at the time of the tremor.  There’s also some chilling discussion of how a reinforcement project recently completed ahead of schedule may have helped prevent a deadly collapse of Candlestick Park.  Then there are surreal moments such Jose Canseco still in his A’s uniform and his elegantly dressed wife pumping gas at the one fueling station that managed to stay open after the quake.  At times this documentary doesn’t seem to know if it’s a sports story or a disasters story, but then again it documents a moment in time when it was uncertain if baseball was not important or if it was a needed distraction to help the communities rebuild.  I think this movie could have been better if the filmmakers focused more on the interviews rather than replaying familiar archival footage, but it’s an interesting glimpse at a moment when the “sports” story became the “news” story.

Movie Review: Knuckleball! (2012)


Title: Knuckleball
Release Date: 18 September 2012
Director: Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg
Production Co: Break Thru Films and Major League Baseball Productions
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | Sports | Baseball
Rating: ****

The knuckleball is baseball’s most enigmatic pitch.  Despite its name, it is thrown with the finger tips and unlike any other pitch it prevents the ball from rotating.  This makes the ball move in unpredictable ways that it make the knuckleball difficult to hit.  Yet that unpredictably has a way of coming back to haunt the pitcher, so there are few pitchers who risk using it.  This documentary follows the 2011 season of the only two knuckleball pitchers in Major League Baseball at that time: Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox (now retired) and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets (now with the Toronto Blue Jays).  These are also two of my all-time favorite pitchers.  The documentary does a good job of explaining the mechanics of the knuckleball and how knuckleball pitchers are treated as an oddity in the baseball community.  It also has some excellent archival footage of the lives and careers of Wakefield and Dickey. If there’s one thing that could improve the movie is to not have so many talking heads and clips of baseball commentators repeating the same basic facts about the knuckleball and perhaps delve into the science and history of the pitch a bit more.

Movie Review: 30 for 30: Four Days in October


Title30 for 30: Four Days in October
Release Date: 5 October 2010
Director: Gary Waskman
Production Co: Major League Baseball Productions
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Documentary | Sports | Baseball
Rating:  ****

The ESPN documentary documents the last four games (played over four consecutive days) of the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, from the Red Sox point of view.  There’s nothing radical about it from a filmmaking perspective, merely clips of tv and radio footage from the games interspersed with interviews with Red Sox players and some celebrity fans.  I watched it mainly so my 5-year-old son could learn some Red Sox history, and it quickly became his favorite movie.  It was also a nice nostalgia trip to see memorable Red Sox comeback and all the little aspects I’d forgotten (doubly so to watch it without the feeling of twisted intestines that I had back in 2004)

Movie Review: Don’t You Forget About Me


Title: Don’t You Forget About Me
Release Date:  13 July 2010
Director:  Matt Austin
Production Co:
Country: Canada
Language: English
Genre: Documentary
Rating: **

Summary/Review: This documentary is a tribute to the filmmaker John Hughes who wrote and directed many popular and influential teen films of the 1980’s including Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  Filmed before Hughes’ passed away in 2009, it features four young filmmakers journeying from Canada to Illinois to find the reclusive filmmaker who has retired from making Hollywood pictures.  The premise is a bit presumptuous, a lot boring, and I don’t think it’s too huge a spoiler to say that they never actually meet John Hughes.  Luckily, the film also includes clips from Hughes’ films, interviews with people who worked with him, and interviews with people influenced by him.  The point they keep returning to is that Hughes’ movies were more true to teenage life than other Hollywood films and even a generation later are very popular among teenage viewers.  This may be true but I do feel that they belabor the point of how bad today’s films are especially since they interview Kevin Smith and the makers of “Napoleon Dynamite” whose movies have a level of cult popularity among teens in their own right.  This documentary has some nice memories about a great moviemaker but it’s mediocre overall.  Just watch John Hughes’ movies instead.

Movie Review: Babies


Title: Babies
Release Date: 7 May 2010
Director: Thomas Balmès
Production Co: Canal+
Country:  France
Language: English | Japanese | Mongolian
Genre: Documentary
Rating: ***1/2

Summary/Review:

It does what it says on the tin, 75 minutes or so of babies from birth through their first birthday without narration and very little context.  And who doesn’t love babies?  Four babies are featured, two from rural communities in Namibia and Mongolia, and two urban infants from Tokyo and San Francisco.  There’s not much structure as it really is footage of babies doing the things babies do.  I really like the scenes like the one of Mari from Japan having a really frustrating time with her toys and kicking the floor in a tantrum.  Of course there is a hidden structure as the filmmakers have selected what scenes to include and arranged them so that they often show contrasts between the modernized and developing parts of the world.  They also often exclude other people – even the parents although you can hear there voices offscreen – and focus on isolated babies in an almost unnatural state.  Animals are popular theme too.  Three of the babies have pet cats in the family, while Ponijao of Namibia lives on a farm and interacts with a lot of domesticated animals.  Overall it’s a very mellow movie and while I kind of feel there should be something more to it, I did appreciate a lot of what it is.

Movie Review: Stop Making Sense


Title: Stop Making Sense
Release Date: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Production Co: Music Television (MTV)
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary / Concert
Rating: *****

Review: So it’s shameful to admit, but I’ve never watched this before. Oh, I’ve seen it because it aired constantly on cable television when I was a child so I saw many sections, but never sat down and watched it end to end.  I’m happy to say that it lives up to its reputation as one of the all-time best concert films and the music holds up as well too.  It’s interesting to see Talking Heads so young, so geeky, somewhat awkward yet planning everything out so thoroughly.  I can imagine in 1984 that some glam metal band would be good at making a grand concert spectacle but David Byrne knew what not only how to make a great concert but what would make for a great film as well.  The addition of members of the bands and the stage crew playing a visible role in setting up the stage is inspired.  I also liked the transition of the band to the Tom Tom Club for “Genius of Love.”  This is a great movie.  I should have watched it sooner.

Movie Review: Mathematically Alive


Title: Mathematically Alive: A Story of Fandom
Release Date: 2007
Director: Joseph Coburn & Katherine Foronjy
Production Co: Vitamin Enriched Inc.
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Documentary / Sports
Rating: ***

Summary/Review:

This movie is about something near and dear to my heart – fandom of the New York Mets.  Set during the historic 2006 season when the Mets lead the National League in wins and made it as far as the 7th game of the championship series, the documentarians track several diehard fans through their game rituals and Mets-centered lives.  The premise is very similar to Still We Believe: The Boston Red Sox Movie, but without support of the Mets and Major League Baseball, Mathematically Alive lacks the glitz and production values of the Red Sox film.  Major League Baseball trademarks and ballgame footage (and even Mike Piazza’s face!) are pixellated out of the movie.  The affect though makes this even more of fan-based film, by fans and for fans, and Mets fans true to their blue-color heritage are not about glitz.  I was especially excited to see the son of a good friend near the end of the film pontificating wisely about his favorite team.  A must-see for Mets fans, recommended for baseball fans, and others may be interested if sports fandom interests them.

Movie Review: Once in a Lifetime


**** Once in a Lifetime (2006)

They say Americans don’t like soccer and that it will never be as popular here as it is in the rest of the world.  Yet I remember growing up in a time and place where not only did I play youth soccer but cheered for a successful American soccer team that played before sell-out crowds in an American Football stadium.  This documentary proves that I wasn’t imagining things in my childhood.  The New York Cosmos were real, they were good, and they were big.

All the figures involved in making the Cosmos – the players and the executives – are all there with the exception of the late Steve Ross and Pele (who wanted too much money to be interviewed).  Still it’s a rollicking film with conflicting opinions showing that tempestuous feelings among the Cosmos haven’t faded with time.  It’s an amazing story of how a team basically made of semi-pros playing at a small college football stadium grew into one of the first international all-star teams playing to a full house in the Meadowlands. And more amazing that some of those semi-pros stuck around long enough for the surreal experience of playing with Pele.

Ross invested a lot of his Warner Communications money into bringing stars like  Pele and Giorgio Chinalgia to the USA as well as making the Cosmos an attraction with cheerleaders, an exploding scoreboard, and Bugs Bunny as a mascot.  The free-spending ways also contributed to the demise of the NASL as other teams could not keep up, not to mention that the NASL expanded to way too many franchises.

The documentary uses graphics, music, and editing techniques that give it a 70’s vibe.  I really enjoyed it and it made me very nostalgic for the golden age of the NASL and the 70’s in New York.  Highly recommended for soccer fans or anyone interested in an unlikely American success story.

Movie Round Up


Constantine’s Sword (2007)

Journalist and former priest James Carroll takes a journey through his own life and through the history of Christian-Jewish relations.  The documentary covers persecution of the Jewish people at the hands of Christians and the influence of religious belief in making wars (including Christian evangelism in the US Air Force Academy).  The movie rambles around the world and asks more questions than it answers, but they are good questions.  What has Christianity done to persecute Jews and how has Christianity supported unjust war?  Good things to ponder if one wishes to follow a God of Love.

Confessions of  a Dangerous Mind (2002)

The “true” story of the libertine tv game show producer Chuck Barris (creator of The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and The Gong Show), who also claims to have worked as a contract assasin for the CIA.  I like quirky, but I found the deliberate over-the-top acting and (admitedly appropos) crudity a bit off-putting in this otherwise mildly entertaining movie.

Chop Shop (2007)

A gritty verite film set in the Willets Point area of Queens (the now-departed Shea Stadium towering in the background in many shots).  Here 12-year old Alejandro lives and works at an auto body shop as well as a variety of odd jobs both legal and illegal trying to save money to by a taco van with his sister.  A bleak and honest film about a boy with way too much responsibility waying him down.

Movie Round-Up


Here’s a short list of movies I’ve watched recently, where recently = since the beginning of July!!!   I previously reviewed Ric Burn’s New York which also fell into this time period, but I’m sure not making good use of our Netflix account.  Maybe now that the baseball regular season is over I can catch up on my film viewing.

Hot Fuzz (2007)

A parody of cop/action films and a comment on the lack of cop/action films in England turns out to be pretty funny.  London’s top police officer is so good he makes his colleagues look bad so he is transfered to a sleepy village that turns out to have far too many “accidental deaths”.  Simon Pegg is awesome as the by-the-book, resourceful, and efficient Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a character completely opposite to his role as a bumbling loser in Shaun of the Dead.  Like Shaun, this movie is funny but also a serious gorefest, so don’t watch if you’re squeamish.

Jane Eyre (2007)

This is a recent Masterpiece Theatre take on the Charlotte Bronte classic.  It plays up the spooky & creepy parts of Jane’s childhood and remains faithful to the book.  Lots of pretty English scenery and drama make for a nice romantic movie for your wife’s birthday.

Barton Fink (1991)

An earnest playwright ends up assigned to write “wrestling pictures” in Hollywood and ends up having to deal with mosquitoes, pealing wallpaper, a William Faulkner-like character, writer’s block and a mysterious murder.  A quirky and entertaining film.  Would make a good triple-feature with The Player and Adaptation, in “Films that take the gloss off of Hollywood.”

Waitress (2007)

A movie filled with awkwardness, furrowed brows, and pies (yum!).  For all the cliches and uneveness in Waitress it somehow manages to still be quite charming.  Andy Griffith has a great supporting role as a cranky dinner owner/customer.

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man (2005)

Kind of an odd documentary about the great songwriter/musician that is half a concert film of other artists singing Cohen’s songs and half interviews, photos, and artwork of Cohen himself.    I suppose the concert footage displays the greatness of the songs and lyrics as interpreted by a diversity of artists, but mostly it just made it more of a treat when the man himself performs a song with U2 in a highly-stylized video at the end of the film.

Movie Review: New York: A Documentary Film by Ric Burns


New York: A Documentary Film is an 8-part film made by Ric Burns that debuted on PBS in 1999 (except for episode 8, which is from 2003).  Thanks to Netflix, I’ve finally seen this epic documentary about my ancestral homeland and one of my favorite cities.

Ric Burns’ style is similar to his brother Ken in that their is a rich wealth of archival images, photos and films, supported by contemporary film interspersed with interviews with a variety of experts and dramatic renditions of quotations by historical figures.  It’s an effective technique, albeit one that could use a few adjustments.  I particularly like hearing from the experts, a grab bag of historians, writers, politicians, architects, and New Yorkers.  Standouts among the crowd include urbanist Marshall Berman, soft-spoken historian Craig Steven Wilde, and architect Robert A. M. Stern (as an aside, it seems to me that architects are often great speakers as well).  I would prefer longer clips of these people speaking about New York in place of the narration, no offense to David Ogden Stiers.  It would be one way to reduce the cliches that plague this film.  If you had a dollar for every time the words “Capitol of the World” are uttered, you could take me out for dinner at a fancy restaurant and probably get change.  Similarly, the contemporary film of soaring over the Manhattan skyline is overused creating a visual cliche.

These are minor quibbles though.  I would expect that many viewers would criticize the filmmakers for leaving things out although it would be impossible to cover every detail of city as large and historic as New York.  I would have liked to have seen more about New York’s role in popular culture such as radio, film, tv, and sports, not to mention more details about the four boroughs not named Manhattan, but so be it. I also felt that the 70 years covered in episodes #6 & 7 could have branched out to include more than road building, public housing, and white flight, since so much else happened in those times.  But then again this is the time of my life, and my parents, and my grandparents so I’m much more connected to it through personal experience and stories

The film covers New York History chronologically, with each episode culminating in a Big Event that kind of ties together the historical and cultural processes discussed in the episode.  These include 1. the Erie Canal, 2. the Civil War Draft Riots, 3. the Consolidation of  Greater New York, 4. the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire, 5. the construction of the Empire State Building, 6. the Great Depression and the 1939 World’s Fair, 7. the 1975 Fiscal Crisis, and 8. the World Trade Center & September 11th Attacks.  I think a more effective approach would have been to ditch the chronological approach and made the episodes specifically about these events: what led up to them, what effects did they have, how they influenced the people and their times, et al.  Episode 8 about the World Trade Center does in fact follow this method by tracing the history of the buildings construction, use, and desctruction, subtly creating a microcosm of New York history from the 1950’s to 2001.

Each episode also has a Big Person, a New Yorker of great prominence and influence who somehow personifies his times (and they are all “he’s”).  These include 1. Alexander Hamilton, 2. Walt Whitman, 3. William Tweed, 4. Al Smith, 5. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 6. Fiorello LaGuardia, 7. Robert Moses, and 8. no one really but high-wire artist Philippe Petit is the surprising heart of this episode.  I like this aspect less if only because it seems to lead to lionizing “great men” and repetition of more cliches (with the exception of Robert Moses about whom opinions were more neutral to negative, appropriate since Moses was eeeeeeeevil).

My overall impression Ric Burns’ New York is positive.  Episode 4: The Power and the People and Episode 8: The Center of the World are standout episodes that particularly bring the history of the city to life.  The former episode covers some of my favorite topics such as immigration and labor, while the latter profoundly recreates the horror of the September 11th attacks, but also the hope and heroism in the aftermath.  If you like New York, history, and/or documentaries check this one out.

Radical Love: the Haley House documentary


Haley House is a great place in Boston where people create community around food. You can call it a soup kitchen, a bakery, and an organic farm, but it’s the people who count. Both poor and privileged come together to share their gifts and learn from one another.

Via Anna at Isak, I’ve learned that a Haley House documentary is in the works. It’s the work of Alexandra Pinschmidt who lives in the Haley House community. The trailer for the film is on YouTube and is quite stirring. Check it out.

I look forward to seeing the entire documentary.