Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

  • Review: The Unknown Known


    A snow globe shaking back and forth, little white flecks – snowflakes – swirl and obfuscate whatever is in the globe. Oh my what a loaded image. It is one of the chief ones Errol Morris employs in his lengthy interview with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Another is an endless ocean of waves: a blank canvas or adrift in the endless wilderness? True to form, after 96 minutes of Rumsfeld speaking, I felt as if I learned nothing at all from what he was saying. A marvelous bit of form echoing content, although for the sake of learning from history, it can be a bit infuriating.

    Rumsfeld, very recognizable for doing so many podium PR sessions on TV for the better part of a decade, was (is?) a career politician from a young age and when these interviews were shot, he was hawking his memoir, Unknown & Known. He’s served as U.S. Secretary of Defense (twice), Congressman, White House Chief of Staff (and Dick Cheney’s boss), at one point was close to getting the Republican nomination to run for the Presidency. His second stint as Defense Secretary was during 21st Century America’s greatest foreign policy challenges, 9/11 and the War On Terror. He issued tens if not hundreds of thousands of memos, which he indeed calls snowflakes, and was an architect a lot of policy. He dictates many of those memos verbatim for the camera – a camera which almost desperately tries to keep up scanning the documents like a typewriter.


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  • Review: Jodorowski’s Dune



    One of, if not the, most famous films never made was Dune. Sure, we got the mid-eighties David Lynch version – admittedly that is a significant guilty pleasure of mine – and some terrible TV miniseries in the early 2000s, but every science fiction cinephile worth their salt has drooled over the folklore behind Chilean writer-director-mime-surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version which would have starred Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier and Salvador Dali and scored by Pink Floyd. The implosion of the project in the mid 1970s and the scattering of the creative and technical team resulted in Ridley Scott’s Alien, but also, according to the storyboard matches inside the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, inspired imagery from Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Flash Gordon, Contact and a host of other classic blockbuster science fiction epics. It was something like all the musicians that were at that one Sex Pistols show went on to create almost the entire Punk movement.

    This documentary may be a talking heads and animated cut-away straightforward but when you have the burning energy of Jodorowsky as the main subject, even at 84 years young, there is more energy and passion (and more than a bit of crazy) to burn. His vision of the coming of a cinema version of Frank Herbert’s cultish science fiction novel was as the coming of a cinematic God. It was to be something sacred, with more than a touch of madness. That he had never actually read the book, well that wasn’t going to stop him. He assembled his creative team, his ‘spiritual warriors’ in Paris from all over the world, young special effects and writer Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien), graphic artists Moebius, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss and preached to them, almost like a cult priest or guru, for months in designing the storyboards and production design element. None of the creative team had read the Frank Herbert novel either, trusting to Jodorowsky’s unrelenting passion for his own ideas and vision. To say there was hubris and grandiosity going into the project is an understatement, but this is the writer director of El Topo and The Holy Mountain, the former film birthed the idea of a “Midnight Movie,” a practice which still continues (to a degree) today, and the latter, perhaps the strangest movie ever made. Trying to raise money from Disney, Paramount and the Other studios proved fruitless, as nearly everyone speculates, it was too visionary (and its runtime likely too epic) for the Hollywood Studio system, and too expensive to make anywhere else.

    Thus, the project lives on as a dream. The perfect dream that exists in the minds of a few, because it was never realized, has become idealized. Something that was to be made by spiritual warriors to mutate young minds has, after 40 years, passed into kind of a legend, almost myth, and it is now collected here as kind of a bible insofar as the storyboards and concept art collection that resulted and how it is further (and handsomely) eulogized by way of this documentary.

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  • Review: Tim’s Vermeer


    Johannes Vermeer is regarded as one of the great Baroque painters, along with contemporaries such as Diego Velázquez, and Rembrandt. He’s often considered one of the greatest painters in history. His depiction of light is masterful, incomparable to any of his contemporaries. In the 17th century, the guild system was still firmly in place, not to see its fall until nearly the 19th century. Most, if not all, great masters of art studied in the guilds. They trained, and honed their skills, in order to, hopefully, become a master. Vermeer, however, had no such training.

    It’s common amongst art historians looking for more in-depth knowledge of their subjects to x-ray their paintings. This penetrates the various layers and unveils the artists’ process. You can literally see the painting from inception to final product. In the work of Manet, for instance, such as The Dead Toreador and The Bullfight, when x-rayed, you can see various adjustments: the removal of a matador, the changed placement of a bull, the raising or lowering of a wall. This is common amongst artists of every era. Vermeer’s paintings, however, show virtually no alterations. This is almost unheard of amongst painters of any kind, let alone a Baroque painter of Vermeer’s quality.

    Tim's Vermeer - Camera Obscura

    There has been a wide range of speculation about Vermeer’s practice, as he was not a trained painter, yet rendered some of the most photorealistic paintings in history. Scholars such as David Hockney and Philip Steadman, both experts on Vermeer, have often suggested that the master was as such because of the use of a camera obscura, or camera lucida. Simple tools often implemented by artists in order to help them properly render more realistic scenarios in their paintings. However, they would mostly be used to lay the groundwork for their paintings, never to produce them as a whole, which was what Steadman and Hockney were suggesting. Such speculation both titillated and outraged art historians and scholars alike. To suppose that a master used machinery to render his work would challenge the very notion of art as a practice. It suggests an objective, almost scientific, nature. For many, it was interpreted as a kind of cheat. » Read the rest of the entry..

  • Trailer: Teenage


    This trailer came out earlier this week, but we somehow missed it. (Hat-tip to indiewire for the reminder.) A sharp and informative ‘Ken Burns-ish’ documentary from Matt Wolfe on the evolution of the ‘Teenage’ demographic – something that has only existed for about 100 years in human history, starting in the early 20th century – which changed the old model of ‘child, then adult’ by squeezing the phase of adolescence as culturally significant. Using non-teens such as Jenna Malone and Ben Whishaw as voice-over over archival photos and video, the film offers an very interesting bit of context as this part of life as something we take as ‘always-granted’ at this point.

    Teenage will get a limited theatrical release on March 14.

  • Trailer: Jodorowsky’s Dune


    “I didn’t read DUNE, but I had a friend, he say it was fantastic!” At 80-something, Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of the great documentary characters as he describes his aborted vision of Frank Herbert’s iconic novel which he never got to make in the mid 1970s. This was my favourite doco of 2013 on the festival circuit (my review is here.) I adored it for the energy of all the folks talking about a movie that was never made, and the magnificence of a dream that will only remain a dream.

    Sony Pictures Classics will be releasing the film on March 21st and have made a swanky poster for the film, below.

  • From Sundance to your living room: Watch My Prairie Home for free!



    Director Chelsea McMullan has had a really great year. Her documentary My Prairie Home (review) is an intimate and eye opening look at singer-song writer Rae Spoon’s music and the uphill personal struggle the artist has fought as a spokesperson for the transgendered. It’s wonderfully shot and a really beautiful story of an individual who, through their personal work, is inspiring and fighting for the rights of others.

    Since its world premiere at VIFF in September, the film has been garnering acclaim, most recently at the Sundance film festival where it will have one last screening tomorrow night. My Prairie Home will be available on demand and for download on iTunes on January 28th but Canadians have a chance to see the movie, for free, before anyone else.

    On Sunday, January 26 and Monday, January 27, My Prairie Home will be available for free either via the NFB Screening Room or simply by clicking play on the player below.

    For now the player will stream the movie’s trailer but starting Sunday, it will change to play the doc so mark your calendars and enjoy!

    My Prairie Home by Chelsea McMullan, National Film Board of Canada

  • Trailer: The Unknown Known


    It seems I jumped the gun in posting my review and Q&A on the Errol Morris’ The Unknown Known, the extended interview the filmmaker did with political lifer, Donald Rumsfeld, in December of last year, the film was pushed back until April of this year, but with all the festival circuit love the film received, there are plenty of pull quotes to put in this brand new (and frankly, AMAZING) trailer for the film.

    Slickly edited and scored as always, the documentary establishes the setting of the two Gulf Wars and Saddam Hussein’s position of power, before it goes after the twin parameters of Morris’ filmmaking: Obsession and Nuance. Rumsfeld calls the filmmaker out on a possible obsession with capturing Rumsfeld’s obsession, while also declaring, “I’m cool and measured.” A subtle battle of wills, as well as some elusive almost-elucidation on the thinking of the recent, former, two time Secretary of Defense.

  • The Education of Mohammad Hussein Debuts on HBO Tonight


    The Education of Mohammad Hussein takes the viewer inside a tightly knit Muslim community in the economically depressed Detroit-Hamtramck neighborhood, focusing on the children who attend a traditional Islamic school, Al-Ikhlas. The film captures a year where the kids and their neighborhood have an unwelcome visitor, notorious Quran-burning Florida preacher Terry Jones, who arrives to provoke them with hateful rhetoric and anti-Muslim demonstrations. How the community reacts to this challenge is the heart of the film, which gives a quietly searing view of a post 9-11 America that is struggling to live up to its promise of tolerance and civil justice for all.

    The HBO presentation debuts TODAY, MONDAY, JAN. 6 (9:00 p.m. ET/PT).

    If you’re able to catch this interesting (and heartbreaking yet heartwarming) sounding doc, please drop by tomorrow with reviews/thoughts in the comment section below.

    Other HBO playdates: Jan. 7 (5:45 a.m.), 9 (7:45 a.m., 7:45 p.m.), 12 (1:15 p.m.), 17 (3:15 p.m.), 20 (11:00 a.m.), 23 (4:30 p.m.) and 26 (5:45 a.m.)

    HBO2 playdates: Jan. 8 (8:00 p.m.), 27 (3:15 p.m.), Feb. 1 (5:20 a.m.), 11 (3:45 a.m.) and 19 (1:50 a.m.)

  • Errol Morris on The Unknown Known


    A Q&A I recorded at one of the Toronto International Film Festival screenings of Errol Morris’s new documentary on Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Morris talks a bit about language, and a bit about the contradictions and snowflakes of a political lifer that is still in his bubble of denial. It is a rather excellent 12 minute supplement to the film itself.

  • Oscar Doc Short List Nominations


    There were 147 documentary films contending for an Oscar nomination in 2013. In the end, there can only be five nominations, but The Academy has whittled the initial list down to fifteen.

    Most of the titles are unsurprising to my eyes. These are all of the bigger profile docs that people were talking about throughout the year. Front-runner predictions? I’d have to think Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell has got to be a favorite. Also, Blackfish and The Act of Killing have gotten a lot of buzz as well.

    The Act of Killing
    The Armstrong Lie
    The Crash Reel
    Cutie and the Boxer
    Dirty Wars
    First Cousin Once Removed
    God Loves Uganda
    Life According to Sam
    Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
    The Square
    Stories We Tell
    Tim’s Vermeer
    20 Feet from Stardom
    Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington

    A couple of titles notably missing from the short list are After Tiller, Gideon’s Army, Let the Fire Burn and Leviathan; four films I’ve seen on some other favorite lists and have been getting recognition in other venues. I think At Berkeley is another one I’ve seen cropping up on some best of lists as well.

    What say you? Any commentary you have on the list? Anything missing or more interestingly, are there any titles on the short list that absolutely should not be there?

    Also, the full list of 151 films is printed under the seats…
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  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Thirteen


    This is the story of the end of an era. For 100 years, movies had been shot on this – celluloid. Paper-thin, shiny, perforated. A medium so sensitive it could capture the subtle colors in snow. But in the ’90s, the digital image and Terminator 2 came and reality got less real. In these last days before that happened, as if to stave off the moment when the link between reality and movies would finally be broken, filmmakers around the world made passionate movies about emotions not spaceships or other worlds.

    In this first of two episodes devoted to the 1990s, Cousins highlights the humanist dramas and insistence on realism that characterize a lot of non-American film in the 1990s. According to Cousins’ interview with Robert Osborne, the ’20s and the ’90s are his two favorite eras, because of the great diversity and innovation found there. Of course, he’s talking about anything but mainstream Hollywood cinema in the ’90s, which were, as Robert pointed out, full of remakes and formula films. Instead, this episode will take us to Iran, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Denmark, and France, while Episode 14 will focus on the American independents like Tarantino and the Coen Brothers.

    Chapter 13 is more polemical than most of the episodes in its fierce defense of filmmakers using film (the actual medium) to capture human themes, which Cousins continually contrasts to the digital revolution on the horizon. He is so tied to this theme that it makes for some really weird comparisons, including a repeated offhanded vitriol toward The Lord of the Rings movies. Even though I appreciate the films he’s talking about here and am really interested in seeing many of them, his apparent hatred of hobbits and the fantasy cinema they stand in for makes this episode a little repellant to those of us who rather like some fantasy films mixed in with our human dramas.

    » Read the rest of the entry..

  • The Story of Film on TCM: Chapter Eleven


    [Turner Classic Movies is airing Mark Cousins' epic documentary The Story of Film, playing one episode a week accompanied by films discussed in that week's episode. I'm writing up my thoughts on each episode. I got behind four weeks ago, but rather than give up, I'm going to just post catch-up posts over the next few days, and I should be up to date for this week's episode.]

    “I have my finger on the pulse of America.” – William Friedkin.
    “These nine words killed the complexity of New Hollywood.” – Cousins.

    After an episode on New Hollywood and one on the national identity-themed films from around the world, you’d think the 1970s would be tapped out, but not so – this is an incredibly diverse and interesting decade in film history, and this episode covers popular cinema of the ’70s with Hong Kong kung fu, Bollywood epics, and the beginnings of the Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a fun episode, filled with action and films most people already know, but with commentary that helps fit them into the overall story of film. Of course, some will accuse Cousins of again being anti-Hollywood in this episode, but I’m not really bothered. In his intro interview with Robert Osborne, he gives mainstream cinema of the ’70s a lot of props for being remarkably innovative, though in the episode he does point out how these innovative films set the stage for several decades of derivative mainstream films.

    First, we go to Hong Kong and flashback to the 1950s, when the Shaw brothers became the first big name in Hong Kong cinema. Under the direction of King Hu, the kung fu film was really born – even if Cousins hadn’t made the connection, it’s pretty hard to miss the influence of A Touch of Zen on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the combination of a historical, romantic story, ethereal mysticism, and beautiful, choreographed floating fight scenes. Then comes Enter the Dragon, with the explosive physicality of Bruce Lee. Cousins points out that Lee’s films are shot with wide angles and long takes, so you can see the fights play out in real time, and then jumps to John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, which cuts often and uses various focal lengths, showing action and reaction in brief snapshots. So apparently we can blame John Woo for the frenetic editing that plagues action cinema today. I kid. But not really. I’d much prefer the Lee style of shooting for fight scenes.

    » Read the rest of the entry..

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