Archive

Documentary

p15073018_v_v8_aa

From Lauren Greenfield, the writer/director of The Queen of Versailles, this documentary tries to be both an anthropological study and photo-journalistic essay of wealth. We are introduced to rich people in LA who get cosmetic surgery for their dogs, rappers in Atlanta who litter strip clubs with currency, porn stars who hope to emulate Kim Kardashian, escorts and limo company execs who sell the veneer of being rich for an evening or an assignation, and a whole host of ostentatious sellers and buyers.

The stories aren’t necessarily new. Excess is a strong component of who we are and coupled with the desire to judge, the sneering at folks who are the most brazen and gosh while we engage in miniaturized versions of their sins is damn near a national past time.

The director’s own revelation of being a small part of it, a gawky teen at a tony LA high school dropped off a block from school so her peers wouldn’t see the car her father drove (and he’s a doctor!), suggests we should trust her as a narrator.  But Greenfield can’t hold a line. She eventually muddles the message, at one point, confusing excess with being a workaholic, a cheap and errant way to shoehorn her own story into the feature.  It’s a bad fit, and her interrogation of her ambitious mother and bright son in the service of the subject is off-putting.

Still, the film eventually crashes when it morphs from a broad review of wealth culture to wild individual stories followed by a “where are they now?” coda that feels every bit as exploitative as the society the director is attempting to depict.

The documentary is also peppered by lofty, laughable socio-political commentary from Chris Hedges, a dummy extraordinaire whose platitudes are in stark contrast to the film’s more understated tenor. The picture is best in presentation, not catechism.

Hedges, however, does scratch an itch: “It’s kind of like the end of Rome . . . Societies accrue their greatest wealth at the time of their death.”

We shall see!  On Amazon.

Advertisements

Image result for American Animals

First time feature writer/director Bart Layton’s true story of four Kentucky college kids who decide to steal rare books from the archives of Transylvania University is a gem.  At root, it’s a heist picture, but this is no Oceans 4.  Layton hilariously juxtaposes the theft in the minds of the boys with the much less smooth, cool and seamless aborted and actual boosts.  Layton also captures the ennui and disassociation of the kids, which has them yearning not so much for the money but for an authentic experience, a stamp.  He does not sugarcoat their selfishness, or make “woe to the disaffected suburban affluent” excuses.  Instead, he makes what seems rather incredible understandable, if perplexing.

Layton’s approach is phlegmatic and innovative without being showy.  His vision of the inertia and isolation of the boys melds perfectly with their amenability to the caper.  He films their surroundings darkly, sparsely and uninviting.  While everyone else seems to be communing just fine, they are off-kilter, uncomfortable.

I can’t believe Layton doesn’t have a promising future in Hollywood.  I only hope he isn’t immediately jammed into The Avengers: Super Mega-Explosion.  My only nit is the failure to properly account for the motivations of two of the four conspirators, most egregiously, with the last addition to the group.  The short-shrift given the characters was noticeable and a little distracting.

The film owes a debt to Richard Linklater’s Bernie in its use of interviews of the actual participants, but rather than high comic recollections from the would-be thieves and gentle reproaches from their family and friends, he captures the criminals as reflective, remorseful and even grasping to explain how they got to their deed.  As for the families, they are disheartened and confused, not enamored of their band of merry kids now that time has passed.

Layton saves his best interview for last, that of the librarian who is most directly and viscerally affected by the robbery.  You can interpret her state of mind in many ways, but she has been affected by the experience, and in what is the film’s best message, her pain seems permanently etched on the faces of the quartet.

Image result for Obit movie

A charming, old-fashioned documentary about the obituary writers who work for The New York Times, the picture is a tight and compelling look at a particular craft, revealed in interviews with the craftsmen.

I love obituaries from the Times, and there is a certain sadness in watching picture documenting an art form whose biological clock is ticking.  Their work is substantial, and it is a treat to see them tell us about what they do and how they go about it.  But it is bittersweet, because the dusk approaches.

I only had one criticism.  While the obit writers freely regale us with their worst errors, the tricks of the trade, and the challenges of an often-time sensitive endeavor, director Vanessa Gould never inquires too deeply.  For example, we hear about the conflict of deaths (Farrah Fawcett passing the same day as Michael Jackson) but nary a word as to how these writers deal with figures with controversial pasts (I would love to have had the obit writer discuss the decisions he made with Jackson’s piece).  Also missing is whether famous folks who die have pressure exerted on their behalf by their handlers and/or family.

Still, a fascinating documentary.  Available on DVD (I still get one a month from Netflix).

 

 

Image result for Andrew Sweet photography miami

A retrospective of Miami Beach partially through the lens of photographers Andrew Sweet and Gary Monroe. This documentary is an interesting and economical time capsule of post war life there, as it became the haven for elderly Jews, eventually giving way to the Mariel influx, the drug wars and accompanying crime, with gentrification delivering the coup de grace. Joyous, poignant and a little depressing. A little uneven but definitely worthwhile.

On Netflix.

Image result for They shall Not grow old

Many museums offer documentary films covering the subject matter of the locale and event they memorialize.  The last one I saw was at the Holocaust Museum in a small alcove theater where you could get a respite from the vast tragedy to watch a short, continuously run film (the one I saw was about a particular figure and her trek from liberation to Israel).  At Antietam, a similar re-enactment film runs, explaining the day of battle, narrated by, I am almost certain, James Earl Jones.

At the outset, They Shall Not Be Forgotten, Peter Jackson’s documentary about the British experience in World War I, has the same feel.  It is simple black-and-white footage overlaid with the voices of those who fought the war recounting their experiences.  There are, however, critical and moving differences.

First, about one fourth of the way in, the black-and-white film comes to life in color, as Jackson has painstakingly restored over 100 hours of footage from the Imperial War Museum.  Jackson even employed lip-readers to approximate what was said by the men in the footage, giving the sense of a sound recording.  The effect is as if ghosts were revealed in the restoration.

Second, the memories are culled from 600 hours of interviews of 200 Great War veterans, who remain anonymous and speak of the every day experience rather than their role in the titanic struggle.  There are no names, and no battle or locale is identified.  You follow no particular individual, though you can discern the British voice in all its forms.  As such, you feel the collective experience without the shackles of a linear, fact-driven recitation.

Jackson’s film is also a generational memorial.  These men haven’t been educated in the ways of individualism and introspection and as you hear from them, you can glean a reluctance to speak, a “what is all the fuss?” mien.  This countenance rarely cracks, even as the horrors of the war pile up in their reminiscing.

As with Apollo 11, there is no historian or pundit or wag telling you what it all means.  These are the unvarnished recollections of men who would have been forgotten more quickly were it not for Jackson’s contribution.   A must watch and a cultural treasure.

B05CE3EC-FDC5-4D44-8E8B-5F6EAE29E3D8

Comprised solely of contemporaneous archival footage updated via high resolution digital scans, there is no commentary or exposition for this documentary of the moon landing mission. It is contemplative and, at times, spellbinding, but can also be somewhat sterile. Still, rather than the standard commentators whinging on about the greater significance, I’ll take it. HBO is currently running a two part documentary on Muhammad Ali that is similar in approach – all archival footage and no commentary – and it too is very good. I hope this is a trend.

47D368E8-C68E-4DA6-AB80-143CC9B34937

The subject of free soloing (climbing sheer face of rock with no rope) is compelling, more so for me because I didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw this movie.  You travel with Alex Sonnold as he attempts the greatest climb of his life, the 900 meter El Capitan in Yellowstone, which seems particularly reckless in that he’s just weeks off a sprained ankle.

The climb is gripping. The psychological portrait of the climber less so. He appears to be a bit disassociative, almost numb, which lessens your investment in him.  For example, he has the cutest damn girlfriend you’ve ever seen, and she’s clearly crazy about him. As such, his risks in the face of such riches would seem casually cruel if he weren’t a bit of a deadened weirdo.

Indeed, the film is about Alex doing something that may well kill him (free soloists die pretty regularly) and voluntarily having it filmed.   The pre-bout navel-gazing (his family never hugged or used the word “love”) and awkward, searching exchanges with his documentarians feel like artificial injections to elicit empathy. They are only so effective.

Would this be tolerable if he was more human, more flesh and bone?  Should that matter?  Should I feel bad that the movie feels long when it has offered me a “he lives or he dies” finale?

My ethical quandaries aside,  watch this on the biggest TV you have.  The visuals are stunning and the achievement monumental.