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Documentary

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Jakob Dylan’s enterprise (re-recording a lot of Laurel Canyon, jangly folk rock and putting on a show) is the heart of this documentary, which also features Dylan quietly listening to the usual suspects (David Crosby, Tom Petty, Roger McGuinn, Jackson Brown and many more) go on about what made the Laurel Canyon sound and scene what they were.  For the most part, the interviewees seem to have no idea, but man, they sure dug the vibe.

The documentary is pretty pedestrian, Dylan being a particularly inapt choice for interviewer (there are times he looks like he fell asleep, which is hard to do in front of the Gary Busey-esque Stephen Stills).  The narrative is also a bit of a mess – is this about the sound, the place or why The Byrds broke up?  is it the film of a tribute record/show?  or is it about Dylan’s seemingly excellent directional skills as he drives around LA?

The picture follows no line very long and when “old friends” like Michelle Phillips or Brian Wilson drop by the studio as Dylan works on their tunes, well . . . “awkward” would be understatement.  Wilson’s snippet in particular underscores the problem.  Hailed as a master of a golden age, when he comes in to see how Dylan is faring with one of his tunes, the only usable footage is Wilson asking what key they’re playing the song in.  Hoo boy.

It’s as if the musicians have been asked so often about “their time” that the answers are rote. All the pulp has been squeezed out, they realize it, and so they compensate with content-less emotion.  Such is their banality, the film uses up footage of Dylan driving in LA, or we get the obligatory Petty and Dylan walking into a guitar store, or Dylan strolling into a record store and appearing like a man looking for directions.

And the movie is only 1 hour 22 minutes.

The best parts are the snippets of song for the show, which includes Beck, Fiona Apple, Nora Jones, Jade Castrinos, Cat Power and others.   But, to be even more of a curmudgeon, Dylan is such a musical barbiturate, even those numbers feel a little lackluster.

Currently streaming on Netflix.

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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.

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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.

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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).

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.