Category: Documentary


In Jackson Heights

March 28th, 2017 — 7:09pm

***

In Jackson Heights-nf

Frederick Wiseman is a well-known documentary filmmaker. Jackson Heights is a well-known community in Queens, New York, which as former New Yorkers we have driven through or have been on the elevated train in that area. It is known as a multiracial/national community where 167 languages are purported to be spoken. This would seem to add up to a potentially interesting “doc.” Before viewing it, we didn’t check the duration of the film which actually was three hours and nine minutes! Although we learned a great deal and were fascinated by some parts of the film, we can’t say the time flew by very fast.

There was no narration and seemingly no particular order of the various sequences. The focus of course was on the people. There were views of the streets, the rumbling elevated train and the numerous storefronts, but mostly it zoomed in on the people.

There wasn’t any introduction to any of the scenes. Usually, you would see people speaking at various meetings often in Spanish (with English subtitles). There were discussions about holding a meeting of the Lesbian, Gay, Transgender Association or planning an LGBT Pride Parade, or a meeting about how landlords were taking advantage of storeowners and how big businesses were going to drive everyone out of the area, or a meeting about how New York City ID cards would be issued to immigrants to protect them from police action, or a discussion in the Jewish Temple about the Holocaust.

Since the filmmaker was comfortable with a three-hour plus project, there didn’t seem to be any effort to do very much editing. In one situation however, we were glad that they held off on it as we heard a woman describing in great detail her daughter’s harrowing journey to cross the border from Mexico into the United States to join her small children and family. The devil here was in the details.

It is notable that the film seemed to emphasize senior citizens a great deal, and as noted while mostly Hispanic, there were sequences involving Muslims, Jews, Catholics and others. Perhaps the overall impression of the film was how Jackson Heights in many ways is the story of the journey that so many Americans have made to coalesce into this great country, which it is today. (2015)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

4.1 Miles ( short documentary film in Greek with subtitles)

March 17th, 2017 — 6:30am

****

4.1 Miles– (short documentary film (in Greek with subtitles) –

This is the first short documentary film, which we have reviewed on this blog. Larry Hott a well-known documentary film director and movie critic and our cousin suggested that we view it and we were blown away by the impact that it had on us. It is a relatively simple 22-minute film made by Daphne Matzaraki and her team. There were no special effects or fancy camera work. In fact most of the shots seemed to be with a hand held camera , perhaps difficult because at times they took place on rolling small coast guard boat at sea.

The main subject of the film is Kyriakos Papdopoulous a dedicated coast guard captain of a boat that comes out of the small Greek island of Lesbos that is 4.1 miles away from Turkey where hundreds if not thousands of men, women and children are fleeing for their lives, mostly originally from Syria.

The movie doesn’t attempt to explain the refugee crisis, the circumstances that have killed their friends and relatives, why they aren’t welcome in Turkey or other countries. Rather it focuses on the somewhat tortured soul of this captain who with his small crew takes his shift on the open sea to save these refugees who are in their small rafts and sometimes in the rough water of the Agean Sea. We see the agony on the face of the rescuer and in the people he is trying to save. We see the fear and tears in the children and their parents as they are pulled on board the rescue boat. We get a view of the attempts to resuscitate drowned and nearly drowned children.

That is it !. Nothing more and nothing less. The net result of this 22 minute film is a slap in the face. Although nominated for an Oscar as we indicated, this is not a complicated movie that delves into the refugee crisis and gives us insight into the political intricacies of this universal issue which includes the current politics in our country. It should bring out each of our humanity which must play a role in all our actions and decisions (2016).

Click here to view film https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000004674545/41-miles.html

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Foreign

Jackie

March 17th, 2017 — 6:19am

Jackie – nf

Jackie of course is Jacqueline Kennedy. This movie tells the story through her eyes, how she reacted to the horrific assassination of JFK who died with his head in her lap after his skull and brain was shattered by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet. Natalie Portman seems to have captured the former First Lady’s breathless voice and her struggle with her grief. If you were alive and conscious of your surroundings in November 1963, you must remember following every detail of this historic event including the tv and radio coverage of the assassination, the President lying in state, the procession to the church service and the burial at Arlington Cemetery. This movie certainly succeeds in awakening these memories that many of us never bury beyond instant recall with any association to the event. Aside from Jackie, the other major character who was depicted is JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy who is played by Peter Sarsgaard. Of course Lyndon Johnson and his wife and other familiar names and faces are there also. The movie was directed by Pablo Larraín and is interspersed with some documentary footage and an appropriate musical background by Mica Levi. The film really doesn’t go beyond this brief time period. We both did feel that something specific was left out of the movie. When we recalled the President lying in state, the image that would bring about tears to both of us was Little John John, the President’s , at most 4 year old son  saluting a flag-covered coffin. We missed that event in this film but we still hold on to it whenever we remember that sad day in November. (2016)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary, Drama

Tanna

February 24th, 2017 — 11:17pm

****

Tanna

This movie is Australia’s entry in the Oscar race for best foreign film of the year. It made the final cut for the top five and the winner will be chosen in four days from when this is being written. It is a very well done film that would stand on its own well deserved merits. However, in a post screening discussion after we met the team that made the film and learned about the unusual manner in which they embarked on this project, we especially appreciate it as a valuable gem.

Tanna is a small island in the South Pacific, basically untainted by modern civilization. There is no electricity. The people wear their native garb made up of straw and other vegetation. They usually are bare-breasted with the men wearing “penis sheaths”. They speak their native language and are illiterate. There are several tribes on the island and they have often interacted with each other, sometimes not always in a friendly manner.

The filmmakers knew of the existence of these people and made contact with one native, JJ Nako, who must have spent time off the island as he uniquely spoke English quite well. The film crew spent four months on the island bringing solar energy for their equipment. Initially, they did not have any script and explored the lifestyle and customs of the people. They then learned about one event that occurred 30 years previously when a young woman was expected to marry a man from a nearby tribe in order to make peace about some conflicts between them. She, however, had found a young man in her own tribe that she loved and they did not want to carry out the orders of their elders and the tribe leader. The filmmakers decided that this story would be the plot of the movie and they enlisted the entire tribe to participate in this film with several members having major roles in the story. The participants spoke their native language and English subtitles were provided in the final product. The indigenous people were interested in showing the outside world about their tribe and the history. The story turned out to be another version of Romeo and Juliet or West Side Story, with all the poignancy and drama of those classics. The incident took place 30 years previously and actually led to the change in tribal customs. So now, while still living in a very traditional manner, these people do have “love marriages” because of what happened in this event.

The native music and songs are part of the film as well as an underlying appropriate score by Antony Partos. There is a very large, beautiful, bubbling volcano which is part of the makeup of the island and was used magnificently by cinematographer Bentley Dean. Credit of course goes to the directors Bentley Dean and Martin Butler who crafted and directed this unusual film.

The filmmakers obviously made a wonderful connection with the inhabitants of this island. The natives and their performance and participation in this movie demonstrated that their love of history and culture must be very intense as their acting was very believable and realistic. Whether or not it wins an Oscar for best foreign film, this movie deserves to be seen. (2017)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Drama, Foreign

Mr. Gaga- A True Story of Love and Dance

February 9th, 2017 — 6:31pm

****

 Mr. Gaga- A True Story of Love and Dance -sp

If you are a fan and lover of cutting-edge modern dance, you will be mesmerized by this foreign  documentary film( in English) of the story of Israeli choreographer and dancer, Odar Naharin. His passion and dedication to dance, and his travels from Israel to New York and back to Israel, as well as the development of the special “Gaga” movement that he originated is a fascinating story. In a post-screening discussion, Director Tomer Heymann, who produced the film with his brother, Barak Heymann and Diana Holtzman, shared the several year adventure that he took to make this movie. He told how he tracked down childhood footage of Naharin, along with interviews of some of the icons in modern dance.

A reflection of the uniqueness and originality of Naharin is not only demonstrated in the design and movement of his work, but also in the journey that he has taken during his 64 years. His interest in movement dates back to his youth and also his time in the Israeli army during the Yom Kippur War (a leg injury prevented him from directly being in combat).

Naharin came to New York and studied simultaneously at the Julliard and the American Ballet Theater (an unheard of accomplishment). He was then accepted by Martha Graham into the most prestigious modern dance company in the world. Actual video footage of Graham talking about this young protégé is shown. Despite this tremendous opportunity and the recognition of his skills, he did not feel comfortable continuing to study in the United States and decided he wanted to form his own ballet company in Israel. By that time, he had met his wife-to-be, a beautiful Asian dancer, Mari Kajiwara, with whom he fell in love at first sight and arranged a meeting with her. She was the first non-black dancer accepted into the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. They came to Israel to direct the Batsheva Dance Company.

There are many more trials and tribulations, happy moments and great sadness, some of which are shared with us in this film. At the time of Israel’s 50th anniversary, when his dance company was to be one of the featured cultural events, there erupted a controversy about the various simple costumes of Israeli army undergarments that his dancers were to wear.

As riveting as is the unusual storyline about this unusual man, the real attraction of this film is the dance that explodes on the screen. Mixed with some very interesting footage of a young Naharin, most of the movie shows beautifully photographed dancers from all different angles doing the amazing movements that this man has pioneered during his lifetime. The film opens in Los Angeles this week at the Laemmle Monica Theater and at Lincoln Center in New York City. Hopefully, the showing will expand to other theatres so many more people can enjoy this unique story and dance experience. (2017)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Foreign

Amy

December 22nd, 2016 — 5:35am

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Amy – nf

As you may know, Amy Winehouse came from a Jewish middle class family in England and became a world famous singer. She died of alcohol and drug use at the age of 27. This documentary film directed by Asif Kapala uses archival film and narrations by people who knew her. We see her as a four or five-year-old girl seemingly independent with a mind of her own which was characteristic of her as she got older. She was confident in her singing as well as in her writing lyrics and she brought to life the words that she wrote which described her life and world around her.

We really were not shown enough to understand her family dynamics. Her parents divorced when she was 10 years old and her father was shown trying to control her career and her mother seemed to be a loving woman in the background. While her music was meaningful to a very large audience, her personal relationships seemed quite troubled. Blake, her boyfriend, then husband and then ex-husband who also spent a few years in jail, brought her deeper into drugs as she got older. Amy was an interesting young woman who had a meteoric rise and then fall. However, we are not really provided with in-depth interviews of the significant players in her life. Perhaps some future biography will provide this. The film, of course, was mostly in a foreign language (British English). Subtitles were frequently provided especially when she sang but not all the time. So occasionally, we would not know what was being said on the screen.

The highlight of the movie was a video segment showing Amy and Tony Bennett working in the studio to produce a recording of their duet by them. Bennett said that he thought Amy Winehouse was one of the greatest jazz singers of all time alongside of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. (2015)

 

Comment » | 2 Stars, Documentary, Musical

Audrie & Daisy

August 23rd, 2016 — 8:19pm

Screen Shot 2016-08-23 at 9.40.05 AM***

Audrie & Daisy-sp

Every high school student and probably many preteens and their parents/grandparents and close family members should see this documentary film. The husband and wife filmmaking team of Bonnie Cohen and Jon Shenk mainly focuses on the lives of three teenage girls and their families who lived in different parts of the country but had similar experiences. This involves teenagers sending naked pictures through the internet, alcohol, parties, rape, and subsequent humiliations. In the case of one girl there was a fatal outcome. Part of the film is seen through the eyes of two of the boys who carried out the attacks on one girl who was 14 years old at the time and apparently unconscious from drinking.

It would appear that neither the parents of teenagers coming of age nor the teachers, school system, or even the criminal justice system seem adequately prepared to deal with this emerging tragic social phenomenon. It is being fueled by a changing Internet which is best understood by the young people of today some of whom end up hurt and damaged by it. Not only does the Internet provide readily available pornography but it also becomes a vehicle for girls responding to requests from boys for nude pictures of themselves, as a badge of popularity. The result and changes in sexual standards are enhanced by readily available alcohol and marijuana. This film shows caring parents who may have thought they were sophisticated about sexual issues in their children but found out that they were basically clueless.

The majority of people who were experiencing some of the tragic sexual consequences demonstrated in this film would understandably be reluctant to publicly describe their plight. Therefore it is a great accomplishment for the filmmakers that they were able to find some brave young women and their families who were willing to speak up and are motivated to action in order to prevent similar tragedies for others. We also meet the very thoughtful brother of one of the rape victims who not only reflected on how he felt but also what he is motivated to do to address this problem.

We could find some faults with the continuity of the storyline and the abrupt changes and locations. We would have also liked to have seen a better examination of the legal issues which are an important part of the story. However there is enough in this documentary film to be a “game changer” in this crucial issue concerning the destructive use of the Internet in our country. Netflix is now onboard with this film and should greatly facilitate its distribution. It opens up September 23rd in Los Angeles and New York. It should also be available soon for home screen viewing. We also understand that there is a roll-out plan for schools to use it with backup educational material. (2016)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

Gleason

July 28th, 2016 — 5:10am

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Gleason- sp

Steve Gleason was a professional football player who ended his season with the New Orleans Saints. The highlight of his sports career was a blocked punt which symbolized the birth of New Orleans after being so devastated by Hurricane Katrina. A statue of him stretched out with a flying leap to accomplish this feat is present in front of the Saints’ football stadium.

A few years after Gleason retired from football at the age of 33, he developed some mild physical symptoms which turned out to be ALS-Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This is a progressive muscle paralysis which over time results in total paralysis of all muscles, requiring a wheelchair and even a tracheostomy in order to breathe and survive. There are no cognitive or intellectual deficits with this disease. The course of the illness can be gradual over a few to several years usually resulting in death and as you can imagine, it can be devastating.

Shortly after he and his wife Michel were told about his terrible diagnosis, they learned that she was pregnant. It was at that time that Gleason decided that he was going to make an ongoing video blog of his life. His purpose was for him to record his daily life which would include expressing his memories and thoughts so his unborn offspring would come to know him and also know about the bond that he felt with his child. Sometime after this process was started, Clay Tweel, a documentary film producer learned of this project and met with the Gleason’s. They trusted Tweel and agreed he would help them with the video production, with the idea that he would eventually make a documentary film.

This project in one sense has become the ultimate reality show. The viewer of it becomes a fly on the wall to the everyday interactions in the lives of this very brave couple. We see Gleason’s speech gradually become difficult, his gait unsteady, and ultimately leading to a wheelchair. We are in the delivery room when he participates in the birth of his son, Rivers. We watch Rivers gradually developing into a toddler and ride with his dad on the electric wheelchair. We see the tears in Gleason’s eyes as he looks into the camera and imagines that he’s talking to a more grownup version of his son who he hopes someday will view his video. The viewer also realizes what a remarkable woman his wife Michel has turned out to be. It is hard to imagine how she handled being a wife, mother, caretaker and also finding that she was a skilled artist. The interaction between Gleason and his father is a story onto itself. His dad is a religious Christian who believes in faith healing. This is a source of great conflict between Gleason and his dad. There is a church scene where a faith healer exhorts Gleason to be cured and run which is quite heart-wrenching.

When people with this disease begin to lose their ability to speak, they often can use computerized speech synthesizers. You probably recall seeing video clips of the famous physicist, Steven Hawkings who has ALS himself and talks with an artificial electronic voice. An even more advanced device is one which records the voice of the patient while he still can speak and then the miracle of a special computer program will talk in the person’s voice when they type or even choose letters and words with their eyes. This was particularly dramatically demonstrated during a recorded conversation of Gleason and his wife during some difficult times. Unfortunately, this marvelous machine is not available to people without financial resources or even to people on Medicare. It turns out that Gleason along with family, friends, various donors including some people from the sports world set up a foundation which provided this equipment for people who needed them. They also lobbied Congress and eventually “Gleason’s Law” was passed. So now the US Government will provide this equipment for all who need it.

On one hand, this documentary movie is a sad story but it is actually a very affirming tale. It shows one man’s determination to establish a conversation with his unborn son, the amazing support of a dedicated wife, and the fortuitous involvement of a talented filmmaker. We have here the opportunity to see a very remarkable and uplifting documentary film, which we would strongly recommend to our readers. (2016)

 

 

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary

It Might Get Loud – Guest review by Leo Blumenfield – Age 12

May 8th, 2016 — 8:04pm

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It Might Get Loud-nf

            This 2009 documentary, directed by Davis Guggenheim, tells how three amazing guitarists, Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White, all from different backgrounds and times can really connect and tell their own story. Jimmy Page comes from London, England, The Edge comes from Dublin, Ireland, and Jack White is from Detroit, Michigan. I thought this was a interesting documentary because of the way you can see the history of guitar and rock-and-roll from these three different perspectives. It is very inspiring, showing how these unique guitarists got their start from playing in a small garage to performing in front of thousands of people. All three of these guitarists have strange and different styles of music and attitude that is so fascinating. 

            I highly recommend this documentary because whether you are a musician or not, this movie really tells you a story that you will never forget. You can also see in this movie what beautiful sounds can come out of some of the greatest musicians when they jam together. Jack White, The Edge, and Jimmy Page talk about some of their favorite songs and musicians and how that inspired their music and their style. They talk about how blues, rock, and soul influences lead them to where they are now.

            Overall, It Might Get Loud is a very fascinating documentary because it shows that wherever you are from, music can always bring you together, and you can bond over something that is so special to you. (2009)

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Musical

Presenting Princess Shaw

May 4th, 2016 — 1:20am

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 10.07.58 AM***

Presenting Princess Shaw-sp

The appeal of this documentary film is that it introduced the viewer to a phenomenon that many of us did not fully appreciate is happening on the Internet. Samantha Montgomery is a black woman probably in her late 20’s or early 30’s who works as an aide in a nursing home in New Orleans. We learned later in the film that she had an unhappy childhood and that she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend despite her protests to her mother. As she got older, she had few emotional supports and became one of many people who reported her daily life activities on the internet. She also likes to make up songs and sing her latest creations acapella. She had aspirations to become recognized as a singer and would sing at open microphone nights in local clubs, frequently with just a few patrons in the audience. One time she went to an audition with hundreds of other aspiring singers to try out for the famous TV show “The Voice” but never made it to the stage to be seen by the judges.

Film director Ido Haar and film producer Liran Atzmor had the idea to do a documentary film about the phenomena of people singing their own songs on the internet. They contacted Ms. Montgomery who used the stage name on the internet as Princess Shaw, as one of many who might be the subject of their film. However, the film producers apparently learned something very interesting that Princess Shaw did not know and made the documentary duo decide to focus only on her.

Unbeknownst to Princess Shaw an Israeli music producer by the name of Ophir Kutiel who is known as Kutiman was downloading her singing on Youtube and was inviting Youtube musicians around the world to arrange various musical accompaniments to the singing that Princess Shaw was putting out on her Youtube channel. Through skillful editing, Kutiman used the talents of several musicians who never knew each other or sat in the same room to put together a terrific arrangement of Princess Shaw singing a haunting song titled Give It Up. The documentary filmmaker, who was following her around with one hand held camera was able to capture the tearful surprise and emotion when she first heard the professional arrangement with the various musicians from around the world. Soon this song had over one million hits on the internet. Princess Shaw was then invited to come to Israel to meet Kutiman and appear in a concert in a very large venue. She now has a record contract and travels around the United States promoting this documentary film where we met her in a screening of this movie which opens in Los Angeles and other major cities at the end of May.

So there you have it, a unique story of our modern times. The documentary film is an amalgam of Youtube clips and handheld videos as the main subject was attentively followed around in her various activities. It was an interesting idea for a documentary film and we are glad that we saw it. For a sample of Kutiman’s production of Princess Shaw singing Give it Up on YouTube with musicians from around the world that now has over 2 ½ million hits, click here (2016).

 

Comment » | 3 Stars, Documentary

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