Title: Searching for Augusta: The Forgotten Angel of Bastogne
Release Date: 14 May 2014
Director: Michael Edwards
Production Company: Jasmine Avenue Holdings with The Five Stones Group
Born in the Belgian Congo to a Congolese mother and Belgian father, Augusta Chiwy was brought to Belgium at the age of 9 and was adopted and raised by her aunt. In December 1944, she was training to be a nurse in Leuven, and traveled home to celebrate the holidays with her father and aunt in Bastogne. At the time, the town seemed secure in the hands of American troops, but within days, the German offensive put Bastogne at the edge of the Battle of the Bulge.
US Army physician John Prior set up an aid station in Bastogne and recruited a Belgian nurse Renee Lemaire (later remembered as “The Angel of Bastogne” following her death by a German bomb) and Chiwy to help care for the wounded soldiers. Chiwy helped bring comfort and healing to the wounded with some of the most traumatic injuries, and helped Prior retrieve casualties from the battle field. Chiwy and Prior developed a mutual admiration during the month they worked together, and keep in touch by writing letters over the years.
Otherwise, Chiwy and her contribution during the war was overlooked. The center focus of this documentary is British military historian Martin King, who spent years trying to piece together stories he’d heard of an African nurse in Bastogne and finding out if she was still alive. The movie is obviously a labor of love, and evidently low budget, but the story of Chiwy and Prior is beautifully illustrated with pencil sketches, supplemented by archival photographs and film. The strange thing is that King does finally find Chiwy in Brussels, but she is hardly shown except in a small portion at the end of the movie and for the majority of the film she appears in she doesn’t speak. It’s entirely possible that Chiwy did not wish to be the focus of attention, but it seems awfully odd that she never gets the chance to tell her own story.
Still this documentary offers a glimpse into her heroic life and makes sure she won’t be forgotten.
Release Date: 14 July 2015
Director: Callie T. Wiser
Production Company: A Five O’Clock Films Production for American Experience.
This documentary tells the story of the night New York City hit rock bottom, July 13, 1977, when the power went out and the city’s poorest neighborhoods erupted in looting and arson. There’s a lot of great archival footage in this movie, much of it filmed by flashlight and candle lending an eerie sense of a city crowded with people operating in the darkness. The filmmakers eschew experts and show interviews with people who experienced that night – a firefighter, a police officer, shop owners, a man who witnessed looting and arson as a child, and an employee at Windows on the World who witnessed the city lights blink out, and then see the high-class clientele remove their coats and ties and enjoy the free champagne.
The Window on the World stories offer a perspective into the often-forgotten reality that in many parts of New York, the blackout was a convivial occasion and most New Yorkers were unaware of violence occurring in other parts of the city. All the same, this documentary doesn’t do a good job of explaining that looting and arson were heavily localized to particular areas.
On the other hand, the lesson that many took from the blackout back in 1977 – that New York was a dangerous place full of bad people – receives a more nuanced take in the documentary. They do a good job of detailing the effects of white flight, the financial crisis, and the austerity programs forced on the city by the Ford administration had created a sense of abandonment and desperation among the poorest people of the city. Many of the people arrested that night had no criminal record, they just wanted some diapers for their babies. There’s also a curious decision by the NYPD to have off-duty officers report to the precinct closest to where they live, and since police officers didn’t live in the poorest neighborhoods, those areas were left with practically no police protection.
I feel that 53 minutes is not enough time to tell this story. A longer documentary would’ve allowed for more interviews offering more perspectives, more details on how Con Ed caused and recovered from the blackout, and more on the long term outcomes of the blackout (such as the emergence of hip hop). Still it’s an illuminating depiction of New York’s darkest night.
Title: Into the Amazon
Release Date: 9 January 2018
Director: John Maggio
Production Company: An ARK media and John Maggio Productions film for American Experience.
The American Experience documentary tells the story of the 1913-14 expedition to explore Brazil’s remote River of Doubt accompanied by former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt and his son Kermit Roosevelt. I’m familiar with the story from reading Candace Millard’s River of Doubt, so I was eager to see the documentary;s approach to the history.
It’s a well-produced but unimaginative take on the history documentary format with talking heads, archival photos shown with the “Ken Burns effect” (and curiously also making the figures in the photos appear 3-D against the background), and film of actors recreating the expedition in the Amazon. Another curious decision is to have the recreations in black & white, matching them with the archival footage, but denying the audience a glimpse of the vibrant colors of the rainforest that the men on the this journey would’ve seen.
I was slightly disappointed, but I expect if you were completely unfamiliar with this historical event that this documentary would be a good introduction.
Release Date: 5 October 2007
Director: Dean DeBlois
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.
Title: The 1964 World’s Fair
Release Date: 1996
Director: Rich Hanley
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.
Title: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29
Release Date: 2008
Director: Kevin Rafferty
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.
Title: I Am Big Bird
Release Date: 2014
Director: Dave LaMattina & Chad N. Walker
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
Title: The Night James Brown Saved Boston
Release Date: 2008
Director: David Leaf
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.
Title: World of Tomorrow
Release Date: 2015
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
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…”
Title: The Gnomist
Release Date: 2015
Director: Sharon Liese
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.
Title: Keith Richards: Under the Influence
Release Date: 2015
Director: Morgan Neville
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.
Release Date: 2006
Director: Bertrand Normand
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.
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
Genre: Documentary | Sports
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.
Release Date: 18 September 2012
Director: Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg
Production Co: Break Thru Films and Major League Baseball Productions
Country: United States
Genre: Documentary | Sports | Baseball
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.
Title: 30 for 30: Four Days in October
Release Date: 5 October 2010
Director: Gary Waskman
Production Co: Major League Baseball Productions
Genre: Documentary | Sports | Baseball
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)
Title: Don’t You Forget About Me
Release Date: 13 July 2010
Director: Matt Austin
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.
Release Date: 7 May 2010
Director: Thomas Balmès
Production Co: Canal+
Language: English | Japanese | Mongolian
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.
Title: Stop Making Sense
Release Date: 1984
Director: Jonathan Demme
Production Co: Music Television (MTV)
Country: United States
Genre: Documentary / Concert
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.
Title: Mathematically Alive: A Story of Fandom
Release Date: 2007
Director: Joseph Coburn & Katherine Foronjy
Production Co: Vitamin Enriched Inc.
Country: United States
Genre: Documentary / Sports
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.
**** 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.
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.