Tag Archive for 'Documentary'

Living With Lincoln

Living With Lincoln (9/6/15) HBO (2015 ***) Directed by Peter W. Kunhardt and Brian Oakes. Peter Kunhardt tells the story of his family, particularly his grandmother Dorothy, and his family’s very special collection of photographs of America’s 16th president. To be perfectly honest, this documentary was a bit of a bait-and-switch. Much, if not most, of its content focused on Dorothy Kunhardt’s life and career. She was the children’s book author of Pat the Bunny and Junket is Nice. While fascinating in her own right, I was understandably more interested in the Lincoln photographs. The documentary technique was solid, featuring home movies and plenty of motion graphics to break up the otherwise static material.

Dear Mr. Watterson

Dear Mr. Watterson (9/1/15) Netflix (2013 ***) Directed by Joel Allen Schroeder, including interviews with Berkeley Breathed, Seth Green, Stephan Pastis and others. This documentary is an examination of the work of Calvin and Hobbes‘ creator, as well as an unabashed love letter to the reclusive “J.D. Salinger of cartoon artists.” The documentary technique was solid throughout, with an appropriate use of motion graphics to break up the talking heads interviews. However, I found the narration to be a bit sophomoric at times, and had wished it were smarter and coming from a more authoritative position with respect to the history of American cartoons. Having said (written) that, the opposite could easily be argued, that it was in fact the perfect choice for the audience, assuming the audience was made up of grade school kids who had just discovered Calvin & Hobbes for themselves. As I watched the film, I kept wondering whether Bill Watterson himself might make an appearance, but (kinda sorta spoiler alert) sadly he did not. One historical note: Subsequent to the release of Dear Mr. Watterson in 2013, Bill Watterson did come out of his cave briefly, returning to the comics pages in a handful of panels in the strip Pearls Before Swine, created by Stephan Pastis, one of those interviewed for this documentary. One has to wonder what connection there might be, if any.

One Day in Auschwitz

One Day in Auschwitz (8/20/15) TMC (2015 ***1/2) Directed by Steve Purcell, narrated by Kelsey Grammer, featuring interviews with and/or footage of Kitty Hart-Moxon, Michael Berenbaum, Walter Feiden and others. Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon takes two 17 year olds with her to visit WWII’s most infamous concentration camp. This documentary was aired on TMC immediately following Schindler’s List (1993). The concept was fairly simple: A survivor of Auschwitz taking two girls, who were the same age she was while in the camp, on a guided tour of her horrific experiences, some seventy years prior. Almost immediately I was struck by how surprisingly upbeat Hart-Moxon was. I guess it makes sense: Who’s more likely to be “full of life” than a survivor? Though it doesn’t contain a lot of theatricality, I saw this documentary as something appropriate for showing in schools, though it does contain a couple of PG-rated words. The underlying messages of the film were twofold: (1) Mankind has a terrible capacity for inhumanity — if this happened once, it can happen again; and (2) the secret of surviving was luck combined with being willing to do whatever it took to survive.

Print the Legend

Print the Legend (8/15/15) Netflix (2014 ***1/2) Directed by Luis Lopez and J. Clay Tweel, featuring interviews with and/or footage of Bre Pettis, Maxim Lobovsky, Avi Reichental and Cody Wilson. This documentary gives a glimpse into the companies and personalities behind the hot new revolutionary technology of desktop 3D printing. I found this documentary to be very well made, and it’s pretty amazing that the filmmakers just happened to be in a position to follow the formative arc (to different degrees) of two of the key players in the 3D printing story, Makerbot and Formlabs. In addition to watching those two companies struggle with shipping products and coping with explosive growth, there were two other significant subplots: (1) Since 3D printing has actually been around for decades, it should come as no surprise that the high-end providers like 3D Systems weren’t going to stand by while these young start-up upstarts ran roughshod over their patented intellectual property. (2) Somewhere along the line somebody decided it would be a good idea to use a 3D printer to print a gun, raising the spectre of governmental control over what can and cannot be printed. As for the documentary itself, though I enjoyed it thoroughly, there are times when I’m distrustful of the documentary genre in terms of balance and truthfulness. In particular, Print the Legend painted Makerbot co-founder Bre Prettis as a smirking asshole obsessed with becoming the next Steve Jobs.

The American Scream

The American Scream (8/14/15) Netflix (2012 **1/2) Directed by Michael Stephenson, featuring footage of and/or interviews with Matthew Brodeur, Victor Bariteau, Manny Souza and others. This documentary focuses on three Fairhaven, Massachussetts men, each determined to scare the unholy bejeezus out of their neighbors on Halloween night. It may come as a big shock, but I have a soft spot for oddball dreamers driven by quirky obsessions. I also have some personal connection to the subject matter, so I was predisposed to like this movie. Having said that, sometimes documentaries are only as interesting as their subjects, and in the case of this film, the three “haunters” — though they clearly had a lot of heart — didn’t make for the most sensational subjects, and I found myself losing interest at times. It’s also worth noting that Michael Stephenson, the director was also the man behind the thematically-similar Best Worst Movie (2009), which I reviewed on 1/26/12. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by that film, either. One thing I did appreciate about The American Scream was its glimpse into the “amateur haunt” subculture, one that holds some interest to me, though I don’t think it’s an activity I plan to engage in anytime soon. It also offered a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting my own creative obsessions go too far.

An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar (8/9/15) Netflix (2014 ***1/2) Directed by Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein, featuring interviews with and/or footage of James Randi, Deyvi Peña, Uri Geller, Penn Jillette, Adam Savage, Alice Cooper and others. Professional magician and well-known skeptic James Randi has mystified audiences and confounded frauds for a half century, but has he saved his greatest illusion for last? I’ve been aware of James Randi as a professional skeptic for at least 30 years, and I’ve always had a great deal of respect for him. For me, he’s always seemed intertwined with my own struggles with belief in the psychic and the supernatural. Like many people, part of me really, truly wants to believe that there’s an unseen world out there, a world in which people (charlatans) like Uri Geller can actually bend spoons. This documentary subtly points to that particular weakness of human nature as the hoax-fighter’s real worst enemy. I enjoyed An Honest Liar throughout, though there was nothing particularly noteworthy (or pyrotechnic) in the documentary technique. There is a revelation that occurs quite late that I will not spoil, other than to say that it came as surprise to me, and definitely resulted in a significant shift in tone during the film’s final fifteen or so minutes.

Hot Girls Wanted

Hot Girls Wanted (8/8/15) Netflix (2015 ***) Directed by Brittany Huckabee, Produced by Rashida Jones, starring Farrah Abraham, John Anthony and Rachel Bernard. Somewhere outside of Miami is a suburban home occupied by barely-legal female porn stars and the talent scout who recruited them on Craigslist. The machinations taking place behind the red velvet curtain of the world of pornography has been fascinating to me for as long as I can remember. This documentary does a very good job of showing not only how the sausage gets made (so to speak) in contemporary internet porn, but also the impact it has on the individuals involved. I think the most interesting fact in the whole film was how many of the young women who go into porn as a means of “escape” follow a weirdly consistent pattern, including their exit from the industry after only a short time. While I don’t normally list the producer of the films I review, I did so in this case because of the peculiar disconnect. Rashida Jones is best known as an actress (The Office, Parks and Recreation) and as the daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. I confess to wondering what Jones’ personal connection was with the documentary’s subject material.

Life Itself

Life Itself (8/1/15) Netflix (2014 ***1/2) Directed by Steve James, featuring interviews with and/or footage of Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese and others. The life of the late film critic Roger Ebert is presented, up to and including the days before his death on April 4, 2013. Not growing up in Chicago, it’s probably not surprising that I first became aware of Ebert from the PBS-aired show he hosted with Gene Siskel, Sneak Previews, which ran from 1975-1982. That show was later replaced by the syndicated At The Movies, which even later became Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. Even as a teenager, I identified more with Ebert than Siskel, and while I didn’t always agree with him, for the most part his tastes in movies aligned with my own. I enjoyed the documentary’s biographical information about Ebert’s life, including his struggle with alcoholism and how he met his wife Chaz at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. What makes Life Itself (which took its name from Ebert’s written memoir of the same title) stand out as a strong documentary was the surprising access Steve James had to his subject in his final days. The “face of cancer” is never a pretty one, and in this case Ebert’s treatment left him facially disfigured. But even with his jaw removed, he refused to be silenced, and for awhile he even continued to make public appearances. Eventually his health failed to a point where his primary “voice” became his blog, which he updated for the final time only two days before his death.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

What Happened, Miss Simone? (7/25/15) Netflix (2015 ***1/2) Directed by Liz Garbus, featuring interviews with and/or film footage of Nina Simone, Lisa Simone Kelly, Dick Gregory, Andrew Stroud and others. A little black girl named Eunice Kathleen Waymon with dreams of becoming a classical pianist undergoes a transformation to become jazz singing legend and political activist Nina Simone. I knew very little about Nina Simone, and in fact was not really aware of her for most of my life until listening to some of her music in my wife’s CD collection. Her story is a fascinating one, one that was formed absolutely by the color of her skin and the times in which she lived. The documentary shows her as a woman suffering from bipolar disorder who was swept up three times: By a charismatic but abusive husband, by sudden fame, and by the radical wing of the civil rights movement. Given her oppressed childhood, I can’t (especially as a middle-aged white man) fault her for becoming radicalized. Unfortunately, her song “Mississippi Goddam” and public performances in which she asked her predominantly black audiences if they were prepared to take white lives in the name of equality came at a great cost to her career. After a time, thanks to the help of some friends and the proper medication, she was able to recover to a degree, before her death in 2003 at the age of 70.

Finding Vivian Maier

Finding Vivian Maier (6/1/15) TMC (2013 ****) Written and directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, featuring interviews with and/or footage of Vivian Maier, John Maloof, Phil Donahue and others. A winning auction for a box of old negatives leads one man to discovering one of the most talented street photographers in the history of the medium. I learned of Maloof’s discovery sometime within a year after he posted a selection of Maier’s images online. Her photos were quite striking and I was immediately engrossed by the story behind them. Finding Vivian Maier was executed with a deft touch and was structured in such a way that the viewer felt the layers of secrecy of the documentary’s subject being peeled back incrementally throughout. Maier herself proved to be a fascinating character who was driven by obvious talents, but also obsessive demons, and there was definitely a dark side to her personality. As one of her former charges testified, her behavior passed well beyond the limits of eccentricity. In addition to the material about Maier herself, there was a second theme introduced involving the reluctance by the art establishment to recognize Vivian Maier as a legitimate artist. I can understand that point of view, but would have appreciated hearing more about the rationale. I was very touched by this film: At the end, I felt both a kinship with Maier as a compulsively-driven creative soul, and also a deep sense of sadness over a life lived in both obscurity and apparently without much love.