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.