December 8, 2017. As a film critic who writes primarily about documentaries this may sound sacrilegious, but, I don’t usually care for “fly on the wall,” verite style, documentaries. I am referring to documentaries that will show a situation and then leave it up to the viewer to interpret it. I gravitate toward documentaries that have stories, points of view and interesting subjects that make me care about something or someone. Call me shallow, but I want to be guided through a film. That having been said, I am a bit amazed, and, at the same time, quite gratified, that I truly enjoyed, and was very intrigued by, the new, verite style documentary “Quest.” Read the rest of this entry
December 2, 2017. There’s no lack of documentaries about Jane Goodall and her lifelong work studying the wild chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania – but the latest one, simply called “Jane,” is astonishing in its depth, beauty and insight. Drawing from 140 hours of never-before-seen footage shot by Hugo Van Lawick for National Geographic, a contemporary interview with Dr. Goodall, and narration created from an audio recording of an earlier memoir, director Brett Morgen offers the viewer an immersive experience that the previous documentaries cannot match. Joshua Paul Johnson (Assistant Supervising Sound Editor), sound designers Odin Benitez and Peter Staubli plus a crew of six (!) re-recording mixers have much to do with this. Read the rest of this entry
December 2, 2017. Multiple marriages, frequency hopping, scandals, dehydrated Coca Cola, nudity, a villa in Aspen, drug addiction, guided missiles, GPS, wi-fi, Bluetooth and one of the most iconic and beautiful actresses in Hollywood, from the 1930’s to the 1950’s, all come together in director Alexandra Dean’s fascinating new documentary, “Bombshell: the Hedy Lamarr Story.” Dean has created a kaleidoscopic portrait of Lamarr, both as a drop dead gorgeous movie star and as an important inventor, whose work was the basis for guided missiles during World War II, wi-fi, Bluetooth technology, GPS and secure military communications to this day. Who knew? Read the rest of this entry
November 8, 2017. One of the most haunting images I’ve ever seen in a music video is David Bowie lying in a hospital bed, his eyes, swathed in surgical gauze, replaced by buttons. His arms rise upward, as if, Peter Pan-like, he could fly toward some Neverland in defiance of impending mortality. The song is called “Lazarus.” Bowie died on January 10th, 2016, two days after the video’s release.
Director Francis Whatley has crafted a remarkable documentary that celebrates the last five years of this electrifying singer-songwriter-actor’s career, during which some of his most brilliant work was produced. Read the rest of this entry
November 8. 2017. Director Paige Goldberg Tolmach’s fascinating and unsettling documentary, “What Haunts Us,” could not have come at a more appropriate time, which can be fortunate or unfortunate, depending on how one looks at it. The film is part of DOC NYC, which runs from November 9 – 16.
In the college sociology classes that I teach, we discuss the concept of deviance. I make the point that what, at one time, might not have been thought of as deviant behavior, now, as society progresses, is seen as deviant. The recent revelations about sexual harassment that dominate the news, including testimonies from those who knew what was going on but chose to say nothing, until now, are great examples of this.
“What Haunts Us” concerns Charleston, South Carolina’s Porter Gaud School, the high school attended by Goldberg Tolmach. Alarmed by the number of suicides of male students in her graduating class, from 30 years ago (six suicides out of a class of 49), the filmmaker delves into what was going on, beneath the surface, particularly with a popular teacher named Eddie Fischer. Fischer sexually abused male students for years and was protected by a wall of silence, from both administrators and students. As one former, now middle aged, student puts it, “You’re dying to tell someone about it, but you’re scared as hell someone will find out.” In addition, the film makes the point that the very culture of South Carolina society – respectable, upper crust families not wanting to taint their reputations with something so ugly – also contributed to this silence.
“What Haunts Us” employs very effective montages of year book pictures, home video, modern day interviews with former faculty and students, archival photographs and tastefully done animation providing nice juxtapositions to experiences recalled by the film’s interviewees. Intercut with all of this are Goldberg Tolmach’s attempts to interview former teachers and school administrators – some willing, some not.
Fischer himself is seen in a modern day interview at various points throughout the film. I assume that this footage is from a police video made after his arrest. Fischer answers questions about the sexual abuse he committed as casually as if he was having a conversation about weekend plans with a neighbor across a suburban hedge. There is no regret, or even real understanding of the damage he has caused. What is so sobering about this footage is that Fischer comes across not as evil, but simply amoral.
“What Haunts Us” will be screened on Monday, November 9 at 7:30 at IFC Center, 323 6th Avenue at West Third Street. For more information, on this and other films, visit http://www.docnyc.net.
From November 9th to the 16th, America’s largest documentary festival, DOC NYC, will be screening some of the most interesting and exciting documentary films of the year. In-depth celebrity portraits, explorations of family life, cutting-edge science and art, urban heroes and global struggles are just a few of the topics to be covered. Two of the films in the festival, “The Final Year” and “Soufra,” both feature capable, dynamic women, but here, the resemblance ends. Read the rest of this entry
October 13, 2017. The beautifully shot and meditatively lyrical documentary, “The Departure,” asks the question that all of us have asked at some point in our lives, “What makes life worth living?” The pacing of the film is slow and contemplative, as befits the vocation of the protagonist, Tokyo native and Zen priest, Ittetsu Nemoto. The director, Lana Wilson, invites us into the life of this compassionate (and self-destructive) counselor to the suicidal who cannot emotionally separate himself from his clients, and is forced to consider the meaning of his own life when confronted with a life-threatening diagnosis at 44. Read the rest of this entry
September 8, 2017. I have to admit that I usually do not care for observational, cinema verite, style documentaries. The truth is that I want to be guided. I need title cards and/or a narrator to tell me where I am and what is going on. I want all characters to be identified. I also want to know what motivates them. Yes, even documentaries have characters…and the good ones have great characters. Mood and atmosphere are all well and nice…but I need a structured story – three acts if you please. Right or wrong, this is what I require for a documentary to hold my attention. My point of view on this may seem simplistic and reductive to some, as I am a film critic and, possibly, should be expected to have a wider range for film appreciation…but there it is.
Bearing all of this in mind, I have to ask myself, why then did I so enjoy “School Life”? “School Life” is an observational, “fly on the wall” documentary about a boarding school in Ireland. I know, from the film’s press notes, that the school is called Headfort and was founded in the 18th century. It is very much a story about teachers and students. Full disclosure, I too am a teacher, and so very much related to what this film depicts. Read the rest of this entry
Rhino Breeder John Hume.
September 8, 2017. It is really interesting that I should see the new documentary “Trophy” after just having taken an education course in something called Creative Controversy. The class was about having students research different sides of a particular topic, debate these opposing sides in class, in teams of two against two, and then switch sides and argue the other point of view. Then the teams give up all advocacy, evaluate the arguments and decide which arguments are best.
“Trophy” does this quite nicely. The film is a complex, at points heart breaking, documentary which manages, for the most part, the tricky balance of objectivity. This is not easy to do. Every documentary has a point of view, a position it wants to convey to the viewer. Staying objective is difficult, if not impossible. “Trophy” skillfully manages to present different points of view, largely without advocating for one over the other. As with all movies, viewers will bring their individual perspectives. This can lead to either latching onto the point of view with which they walked in, or, if they are really open minded, perhaps considering a point of view they had not had previously. Read the rest of this entry