It depends what you mean by ‘happy’
What’s the best way to make a documentary about a philosopher? Sit down and talk to him. Better yet, if you’re Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) chatting with Noam Chomsky about life, the universe, and everything, animate the whole thing.
Is the Tall Man Happy? is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:
[Michel] Gondry’s lovably sincere and chatty Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? starts by telling how he came across [Noam] Chomsky after seeing films on him, like the epic 1992 dissertation on his media critique, Manufacturing Consent. At first, it seems like Gondry is going to overplay the worshipful naïf card in his narration, interrupting himself, acting nervous, and highlighting being out of his depth: “As you can see, I felt a bit stupid here.” But Gondry’s natural charisma takes hold of the conversation. Instead of trying to boil down Chomsky’s dense linguistic and political viewpoints, Gondry and he simply talk philosophy…
You can watch the superb trailer here:
‘Caucus’: This man also wanted to be president
Once upon a time, in the land of Iowa, there were people who thought that Rick Perry might become president of these United States. It was a strange time, the 2012 GOP Iowa caucus, and something that you really wish that Hunter S. Thompson had still been alive to see and write about.
In the meantime, there’s Caucus, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about all the sun-baked, deep-fried, conservative weirdness. It’s playing now in limited release. My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part:
The 2011 Iowa State Fair captured in AJ Schnack’s Caucus has a frozen-in-amber quality. Just a little of those butter sculptures, livestock demos, and toddling families baking in the bright prairie sun go a long way. What stands out are those interlopers stalking the fairgrounds, grinning and gripping any who come within range, cameras and recorders buzzing like flies. There’s something highly alien about mixing these politicians’ bright and buffed ambitions with the laidback surroundings. It makes for some surreal flashes in the film, like the hippie protesters drumming in the distance, or when an announcer booms out an introduction for “the next President of the United States…Michele Bachmann!”…
The trailer is here:
Dr. Susan Robinson in ‘After Tiller’.
After several recent documentaries about abortion that have hewed to a closely nonpartisan viewpoint (12th & Delaware, in particular), After Tiller stakes out a definite position. In staunchly defending the heroism of the four doctors who still provide late-term abortions after the 2009 assassination of George Tiller, the filmmakers have created a powerful but still thoughtful investigation of a tough subject.
After Tiller is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Racket; here’s part:
When Dr. George Tiller was assassinated at his Wichita church by a pro-life fanatic in 2009, he became the eighth abortion clinic worker in America to be killed. At the time he was one of the country’s only doctors who performed third-trimester abortions. Tiller continued his work despite fulminations from extremist groups like Operation Rescue and pundits like Bill O’Reilly (who referred to him as “Tiller the Baby Killer”) and the threats that followed all that overheated rhetoric like a storm. He said at one point, “Everything has a risk to it.” That risk shrouds all the stories told in Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s hopeful, quietly optimistic documentary After Tiller; there’s a reason that none of the patients in the film have their faces shown…
You can watch the trailer here:
‘Hank and Asha’
The 2013 Rhode Island International Film Festival ran from August 6–13, with films playing mostly in Providence. It was a somewhat sparsely attended but extraordinarily well-curated event; nothing that a little more publicity couldn’t help.
My overview of some of the films that played ran in PopMatters, here’s some highlights:
Keep your eyes peeled for them to come to a fest or high-number cable channel near you soon.
Sometimes, it’s best to just let the people tell the history. That’s the idea behind the fascinating new documentary Israel: A Home Movie. It throws together home movie footage shot by Israelis from the 1930s up through the mid-’70s, layers in narration (everything from nostalgic to carping) and lets the flood of imagery tell the story of a young nation.
Israel: A Home Movie is playing now in limited release, should pop up in a few theaters around the country eventually. My full review is at Film Journal International:
The footage begins in black-and-white, in a land that looks positively medieval despite the 20th century already being a third over with. Over these images of strangers in the streets or family members eagerly waving in kitchens or yards, the filmmakers layer audio clips from the people who shot the footage, and their relatives. As a result, the film can move with the ebbing tides of family disagreements over what they’re actually looking at. The doc proceeds as the viewing of any home movie does, with relatives jumping in to point out a person or some fact (one man joking that his father was “the worst cameraman in the world,” a woman pointing out a young boy who was later “murdered by the Arabs”), haggling over what means what…
You can see a short clip here:
Sarah Polley films the film in ‘Stories We Tell’
With her films Away From You and Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley has proven to be a ridiculously sharp and gimlet-eyed young filmmaker—who’s also an accomplished actress, should she ever want to return to it.
In her newest, Stories We Tell, Polley digs into the not-so-hidden secrets of her family history using a variety of methods: self-aware techniques, contradictory stories, re-created “home movie” footage, and plenty of dry humor. It’s a wonderful piece of work all things told, honest and playful and curiously wise.
Stories We Tell opens on Friday. My review is at Film Racket, here’s part of it:
To understand how memory is fluid, just ask two relatives to recall the same incident. More often than not, their recollections will have major discrepancies. Next, throw in more family members from different generations, and layer onto that a mealy mix of secrets; pretty soon a simple story turns into a Russian novel. That’s what Sarah Polley comes up with in her engrossing documentary exploration of how the bricks of memory are untidily piled together to create messy and incomplete personal stories, and out of those stories comes a life. Or a version thereof…
You can check out the trailer here:
The 2013 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs through this weekend, is starting off well. The planners are continuing their trend of paring down the offerings and focusing more on their strengths (on-point documentaries, the occasional high-profile indie drama or comedy) than trying to appeal to everybody with a scattershot program overly reliant on marquee names and red-carpet events. The result is many stories about grim things, from Oxycontin abuse in Appalachia to the 1985 Philadelphia police’s fatal bombing of a radical group’s rowhouse.
I’ve been covering some of the first weekend’s films for PopMatters, here’s some of what was on offer:
- The Project and Big Men — Mercenaries stumble in creating an anti-pirate militia in Puntland, while American wildcatters confront pitfalls aplenty in Ghana and Nigeria, in two documentaries examining crises in Africa.
- Let the Fire Burn and The Kill Team — Two documentary autopsies of violent tragedies, the first in Philadelphia and the second in Kandahar, show the results of systematic dehumanization.
- Oxyana and Bottled Up — A gritty documentary and fluffy comedy bring a similarly hardheaded sensibility to the invisible epidemic of pain pill addiction.
More to come.
Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining is many things: Creepy, deliberate, fiendishly jokey, way over-reliant on Jack Nicholson, and perhaps the last interesting film that Kubrick did. But to some people it was far more than that. The documentary Room 237 weaves footage from the film in with interviews from its many dedicated viewers who have analyzed every single frame…and found things there you wouldn’t believe.
My full review is at Film Journal International; here’s part of it:
If it wasn’t The Shining, it would have been something else. That’s the first conclusion reached while watching Rodney Ascher’s all-enveloping head-first dive into the world of diligent obsessives who have parsed and filleted Stanley Kubrick’s horror film for deeper meaning. Many of them go so deep into each frame that it’s a wonder the many hypotheses hauled up in their nets, wriggling and wild-eyed, weren’t even further out on the fringe. “I admit,” one interviewee says in a rare sober moment, “that I am grasping at straws”…
Room 237 is playing now in limited release.
You can watch the trailer here:
Every 7 years since 1964, director Michael Apted has been checking in on the same group of 14 British subjects he first interviewed for the groundbreaking (though it didn’t seem it at the time) documentary 7 Up. Now, everybody is 56 years old.
My full review is at PopMatters:
Eight films on, director Michael Apted (who worked as a researcher on the first film) has created something for the ages. The Up series is like a living, breathing cinematic experiment. (More than a few of the people appear to feel they are being watched under a microscope, and resent it.) But after each seven-year delay, when Apted and his crew returns to interview those of the original 14 still talking to them, the drama of it increases in small increments almost scientific in tone. We see person turn not just from children into adults, but from characters into people. By the time that 56 Up comes around, most involved have left so much of themselves on the screen that the impending clouds of sickness and mortality begin to carry an almost unbearable weight…
56 Up is playing in limited release right now, and should be available on DVD later in the year. It’s best to catch up on the earlier installments first.
You can see the trailer here:
The 2011 dance documentary from Wim Wenders, Pina, was a refreshing new usage of the 3D format for nonfiction film. (Werner Herzog tried to use it to much less effect in Cave of Forgotten Dreams). The film is available today from Criterion Collection in DVD and Blu-ray. My full review is at AMC Movie Guide:
Joy isn’t a feeling that one associates with Wim Wenders all that much. Wonder or ennui, maybe irony, but not joy. But nevertheless that’s the first thing that springs to mind with his electric new 3D dance documentary, his first feature to get a real Stateside release since 2005′s moody, downbeat Don’t Come Knocking. There are other feelings and moods wrapped up here, tragedy and loss, but with all the sunlight (has the man ever shot a brighter film?) and sweeping movement, the joy prevails. This is filmmaking as glorious music…
You can see the trailer here: