Category: Documentary


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

****

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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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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

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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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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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            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

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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

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba

April 29th, 2016 — 11:39pm

****

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Ernest Hemingway is the iconic writer who is forever linked to Cuba where he spent much of his life. Denne Bart Petitclerc was a reporter for the Miami Globe in the 1950s and for very personal reasons idolized the great writer and wrote him a letter telling him so. This led to a correspondence and then a friendship with “Papa” Hemingway and his wife, Mary Hemingway.” Petitclerc visited Cuba several times and subsequently wrote about his relationship with Hemingway, which is the subject of this outstanding docudrama. This movie offers a sensitive insight into this brilliant writer, driven, complicated man who was an alcoholic, had severe depression and possibly a bipolar disorder as well as a complicated love life. In addition, he was drawn into the Castro Communist revolution and was also in conflict with the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.

While this all makes a fascinating story, the attraction and success of this movie is the portrayal of Papa Hemingway by Adrian Sparks. This veteran award winning actor has played Hemingway in one-man-shows on the stage for several years in addition to his other stage and film accomplishments. He was the natural choice for this role. Giovanni Ribisi is excellent as Petitclerc and he is called Ed Myers in the film. The movie also stars Joely Richardson as Mary Hemingway and Minka Kelly as Myers’ girlfriend.

Director and producer, Bob Yari also scored an amazing accomplishment in that he received permission to film this movie in Cuba. After much negotiating he was able to do this because the movie is portrayed as a docudrama rather than a commercial film. However, the movie will hold the audience’s attention as well as any good drama. In fact, if you have had any occasion to be a tourist in Cuba in the past several years as we have, you will appreciate the familiar sights. We were particularly pleased to see Hemingway’s house, which is now a treasured museum but was used in the film. In fact, in a post screening discussion, we were told the real items in the house were substituted with props but at the last moment, Cuban officials allowed Hemingway’s actual typewriter to be used in the movie. Knowing this lends a special realism when we see him typing on it in the film. Enlightening, moving and totally engaging, this movie is well worth seeing. (2016)

 

Comment » | 4 Stars, Documentary, Drama

A Classy Broad

April 21st, 2016 — 4:48am

***

Marcia Nasatir

   Marcia Nasatir

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It is ironic that this documentary film about one of the pioneer film producers who often was the key person in getting a film green-lighted has just been completed and is now looking for distribution. Marcia Nasatir, who is about to turn 90 years of age is the subject of this movie. She was the first female vice president of production of a major movie studio (United Artists). The director producer of “A Classy Broad” is Anne Goursaud, an accomplished film editor who is hoping that this movie will be her breakthrough film. It is is all about inside Hollywood.

Ms. Nasatir, the centerpiece of this documentary, is well-known, well-liked, and well respected by many legendary movie insiders some of whom appear in this film. Prominent among this group was Mike Medavoy, former Chairman of Tristar and United Artists, and co-founder of Orion Pictures. Others include screenwriters and directors such as Lawrence Kasdan, Tony Bill, Lucy Fisher, Rob Cohen, Robert Towne and the late Lorenzo Semple, Jr. We also hear numerous stories about Ms. Nasatir’s role in many successful movies, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Sting, Hamburger Hill, Coming Home, Rocky The Big Chill and many others. Also appearing in the documentary is actress Glenn Close, who is one of the stars of The Big Chill. Ms. Nasatir’s career was “rocky” itself as she was sometimes passed over for promotion, no doubt because women were not just moved into these leadership positions in the film industry during the 1970s and ‘80s.

If there is anything lacking in this movie, it would be not having more of the personal life of Ms. Nasatir. We know very little about her childhood, education, marriage, divorce and her two children. While these details all might make the type of a story that Ms. Nasatir might look for in an interesting feature film, they are certainly not necessary or essential to appreciate this documentary film about this “Classy Broad” and her very successful career in the movie business. (2016)

Comment » | 3 Stars, Biography, Documentary

What Happened, Miss Simone?

March 13th, 2016 — 9:37pm

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This Oscar nominated documentary biography will grab you and hold your attention and your emotions. You will re-experience the meaning that the Civil Rights Movement may have had to you and how you understand its significance in this country. Music as it always does, creates and brings out deep-rooted feelings and the haunting music and lyrics of this gifted singer and musician will do just that. You will come to understand who Nina Simone was and where she came from and what she was trying to do. But this film will also raise questions about Miss Simone, as a wife, mother, and troubled soul that will remain unanswered although undoubtedly you will share our admiration for her.

Nina Simone grew up as the preacher’s daughter in North Carolina. She was noted to have musical talent and as a young girl she played the piano in church. She went on to get formal music lessons and she had a lifelong unfulfilled wish to be the first black classical concert pianist. She also , clearly, experienced the pain of the Jim Crow South and multiple occasions of blatant discrimination because she was black.

This film documents what she did become and that is a widely acclaimed blues singer with a very distinctive style. When the Civil Rights Movement burst upon the scene, her music and words became part of its anthem alongside of Martin Luther King and others. This was symbolized by the controversial song Mississippi Goddamn”( click to hear this great song) which was embraced by the movement but apparently ultimately marginalized Miss Simone’s ability to work in the musical industry.

The details of Miss Simone’s journey were very well documented with film clips and interviews with people who were very close to her including lifelong friends, fellow musicians, her husband, and her now grown daughter. One of the most fascinating and convincing parts of this documentary film was the showing of the handwritten pages of her own diary. These scribbled words with printed subtitles at the bottom of the screen, documented her love and dependency on her husband, a former New York City policeman who guided a good part of her successful career but also apparently viciously beat her according to her own words. We do not really understand why and how she tolerated him so long before divorcing him. Nor do we understand how she could suddenly leave her loved only young daughter with her good friend and abruptly go off to Europe to try to revive her career.

Her own diary also documents her bouts of suicidal thoughts during this period. As a psychiatrist, one of us (MB) knows we can never properly make a diagnosis or understand the clinical issues in someone we have never seen in our consulting room. However, it should be stated that in her late years, we clearly see a very depressed woman. We are told in the words of her grown daughter and others that she had a diagnosis made of manic-depression and was prescribed “Trilafon” (a second generation antipsychotic medication – not usually the medicine of choice for this condition). We are also told that the medication helped her a little bit. It is also stated that she subsequently had certain symptoms of stiffness and twitching of her lip which are common side effects of this medication that was given to her. While we certainly don’t know all the details we can’t help wondering if she had the best treatment

Miss Simone died at the age of 70 and we do not know too much about her last few years. We have come away from this well-done documentary film by director and producer Liz Garbus with an appreciation how this talented woman was able to find her destiny at the same time that she was able to touch the emotions and express the voice of so many people during the Civil Rights Movement in this country. Through this film and her music, there is the opportunity for her work reach future generations. (2015)

 

Comment » | 4 Stars, Biography, Documentary

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