November 30, 2015. I am probably going to get myself in trouble, with some readers, for writing this, but I do not have a problem with those who named names during the MacCarthy era. My problem is with the government, and the cooperating social institutions, who threatened and pressured these people (not to mention ruined lives, in many cases) into testifying against their friends and associates. The new film “Trumbo” takes a detailed look at this period, a time filled with colorful characters, both on the right and wrong sides of history. “Trumbo” has a stellar cast, headed by Bryan Cranston as the larger than life blacklisted screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo.
From dodging a charging bull in the mountains of Peru to crossing a sea in a small boat with threatening storm clouds looming overhead in Siberia, Seth Kramer is the Indiana Jones of documentary filmmaking. Kramer travels the world to make documentaries for his company Ironbound Films, produced in conjunction with his partners Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger.
Ironbound’s latest film, “The Anthropologist,” will have its world premiere on November 13 as part of DOC NYC. In discussing the new documentary Kramer explained, “You are looking at the world from the eyes of a social scientist trying to make sense of the world .” Read the rest of this entry
November 8, 2015. DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary film festival, runs from November 12 – 19 at IFC Center (323 6th Avenue), Chelsea’s SVA Theatre (333 West 23rd Street) and Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas (260 West 23rd Street). The 2015 edition of DOC NYC will include 104 feature length documentaries. More than 200 documentary filmmakers are expected, in person, to present their films. Special guests will include Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin Scorsese.
On Friday, November 13 the documentary “The Anthropologist” will have its premiere screening at DOC NYC. The screening will take place at the SVA Theatre at 9:30 pm.
“The Anthropologist” is the latest documentary made by Ironbound Films, a unique company which has produced some fascinating documentaries. Ironbound Films boasts no less than three directors – Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller and Jeremy Newberger – all of whom work on the company’s movies. Previous Ironbound documentaries include the 2012 documentary “Evocateur: the Morton Downey, Jr. Movie” (available on Netflix) and “The Linguists” (2008). Read the rest of this entry
November 4, 2015. From November 4 – 12 Film Forum will present a new, 4K restoration of director Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 masterpiece, “Spartacus” starring Kirk Douglas. “Spartacus” is an all out big budget Hollywood “sword and sandals” epic that more than holds up. Its battle scenes are nothing short of spectacular and its political maneuvering just as relevant as ever.
It boasts a magnificent cast, the likes of which we will never see again. In addition to Douglas the cast includes Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton (incapable of giving an even remotely bad performance), Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar for his role in “Spartacus”), Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons and John Gavin.
I remember seeing the 1991 70mm restoration of “Spartacus” at the Ziegfeld theater. I actually snuck into its premiere and was so struck by this 197 minute long Hollywood epic about a slave revolt in ancient Rome, that I returned a week later to see the film again. Prior to this I had attempted to watch “Spartacus” on a VHS cassette and found it unwatchable. Therefore the 1991 restoration was, for me, a revelation and I have been a fan ever since. The 1991 restoration, done prior to the strides that we now have in digital technology was done photochemically by film restorer Robert Harris, who also restored “Lawrence of Arabia,” among other films. Read the rest of this entry
August 24, 2015. The timing of my seeing writer and director Macdara Vallely’s very enjoyable film “Babygirl” could not have been more appropriate. I have just finished teaching a summer course at CUNY Queens College called “Sociology of Cinema.” The class focused on events occurring in society and how these events influenced the movies being made at different times.
One of the subjects covered was neorealism which, to put it succinctly, focuses on poor people living in the actual circumstances of the time in which a particular film was made (for example, in the case of Italian Neorealism, post WWII Italy). Neorealism also places an emphasis on the environments in which the stories take place – in particular run down sections of urban areas. I wanted to show how Italian Neorealism (an example being “Bicycle Thieves” – 1948) influenced films made in other cultures. To that end we screened the Indian film “Siddharth” (2013) and “Gimme the Loot” (2012), the latter being a film about cash strapped graffiti artists in New York City. Incidentally, “Siddharth” and “Gimme the Loot” are both on Netflix and are highly recommended.
“Babygirl” (now available on iTunes and VOD – Video On Demand) is a nice addition to the genre of modern day neorealism (and what could be more in keeping with the spirit of neorealism than the fact that “Babygirl” is being distributed on affordable platforms, such as iTunes and VOD, as opposed to having an expensive, per ticket, theatrical release?). Read the rest of this entry
August 19, 2015. As a teacher of sociology and media I found myself intrigued by the new documentary “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery,” now playing at Film Forum. It is a documentary which takes its place among some very good documentaries about art, specifically the perception of art, value of art and the business of art. My list includes “The Art of the Steal” (2009), “Art and Craft” (2014), “Exit Through the Gift Shop” (2010) and “Herb & Dorothy” (2008). I use all of these films in my classes to make points about art and the role played by the media to present art in different ways.
“Beltrachhi” concerns Wolfgang Beltracchi, a very successful German art forger who was finally found out after about 40 years. He escapades included fooling museum curators, art experts, art dealers, the auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, not to mention movie star Steve Martin, who bought a painting. Read the rest of this entry
I will be teaching two courses in the Sociology Department of Queens College from June 29 – August 6, 2015. The classes are “Sociology of Cinema” soc 249-01 (7863) and “Mass Communication and Popular Culture” soc 218-01 (7862).
“Mass Communication and Popular Culture – soc 218-01 (7862). This course examines the role of media in terms of how it frames a narrative, including the malleable nature of truth. The course also looks at how media can create instant celebrities and, on the flip side, how media can be used for social action. The class also looks at how government tries to punish those whose use of media it does not approve. While the course examines current media related issues, it also uses media: narrative films, documentaries, TV and internet to illustrate its points. In addition the class has an array of fascinating guest filmmakers who come to class, in person and via Skype.
“Sociology of Cinema” soc 249-01 (7863). Sex, drugs, alcohol, gangsters (and those are just the films from 1930 – 1934!). “Sociology of Cinema” looks at cinema from the point of view of what was occurring in society at a particular time and how this affected the movies being produced. Topics include Film Noir, Pre-Code and Post Code Hollywood which includes Gangster Films, Social Issue Films, Sin Movies and films of the 1970s, a time of major upheaval for Hollywood.
On April 25 the Tribeca Film Festival nearly blew the roof off of the Beacon Theater with its closing night event, a 25th anniversary screening of director Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film “Goodfellas,” presented in a stunning, digital restoration. Following the screening, moderator Jon Stewart conducted an interview with “Goodfellas” cast members Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Ray Liotta, Lorraine Bracco and “Goodfellas” screenwriter Nick Pileggi, who also wrote the book “Wiseguy,” upon which “Goodfellas” is based. Conspicuously absent from the event was Scorsese, who is on location in Taiwan, shooting a movie. Scorsese shot an video introduction to the evening, which was shown before the film. Irwin Winkler, the film’s producer, also shot a video introduction. Read the rest of this entry
The Tribeca Film Festival is now running from April 15 – 26 at various venues. As is my habit, I have eschewed the glitz, glamour and celebrities of the festival because, for me, the festival is all about the films, documentaries in particular. At film festivals the documentaries are always the best parts, while fiction films can be “hit” or “miss.”
Autism in Love
“Autism in Love” is my favorite documentary at this year’s festival, so far. It is a portrait of autism that I don’t think has been previously brought to light. The documentary captures the logic, thinking, points of view and feelings of four autistic people dealing with real world, life issues – wanting a relationship, the possibility of taking a relationship to the next level and dealing with a health crisis within a relationship. These are poignant, frank, dignified portraits, richly observed with characters who are appealing. The film is simultaneously heartfelt, funny, sad and, above all, quite human. Director Matt Fuller has portrayed his subjects, and their families, with care and respect. Fuller’s talent as a director has been enhanced by the film’s excellent cinematography, editing and music.
First and foremost, “Autism in Love” is a beautiful looking film, shot by cinematographer Scott Uhlfelder. The subjects are photographed as thoughtful, dignified, articulate people. It is a pleasure to watch.
Film editor Alex O’Flinn has had the good sense and talent to know when to let interview segments play out and to not cut them short. Shots often linger on the faces of the subjects after they have answered questions – a tribute to editing, as well as directing. The result is that we see the subjects contemplating what they have just said and how the saying of this has made them feel. The subjects are very frank about their feelings on being autistic, how they view the world and, perhaps most important, how they feel the world sees them.
The music, by Mac Quayle, underscores the film’s emotions without poking the audience in the ribs and telling it how to feel. In other words the score accomplishes what good music should do.
“In Transit” is one of the final documentaries by Albert Maysles. The subjects are passengers on board the Empire Builder, America’s busiest long distance train route. The three day long journey runs between Chicago in the east and Portland and Seattle in the west.
We meet many passengers throughout the documentary. I had the impression I was being shown a cross section of a sub-culture of long distance train travelers. Maysles presents snippets, as opposed to fully developed portraits, of the many subjects on board. The snippets are enough, though, to sketch in who these people are.
Most of the passengers have lives that are in the process of changing. They have regrets about their pasts and hopes for better futures. Maysles’ observational style puts us right on the train in which strangers converse with each other, as well as with Maysles.
“In Transit” is also about the bonds that form between strangers, who feel free to share intimate information about themselves. A passenger points out that it is better than an airplane ride because, on a train, there is much more social mobility and time. Maysles has captured his subjects as they take breathers from their lives.
The film explains that there are actually many Empire Builders crossing the country simultaneously, headed east and west, carrying hundreds of passengers, something which captured my imagination. If one took this particular group of people and multiplied by the thousands of people who take this ride, one would get a portrait of a country not only in transit, but also in transition.
Every documentary has a point of view. There is no such thing as objectivity in documentaries. “Prescription Thugs” is certainly no exception this rule. Director Chris Bell (“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” – 2008) has created a harrowing, entertaining and, I’m sure, factual portrait of America’s dependence on prescription drugs. It is a personal documentary as well as an attack on big pharmaceutical companies, as Bell shows how drug use has effected his family, including his own demons with drugs and those of his brother.
Bell has clearly been influenced by the work of Michael Moore. Bell uses “Mooresque” techniques of humorous film clips, taken out of their original contexts, to get across his findings. “Prescription Thugs” is compelling, funny and makes great points. Bell points out that Americans (5% of the world’s population) consume 75% of the world’s prescription drugs. The bad guys area clearly the pharmaceutical companies, or, as Bell refers to them “pharma.”
While I am not saying that Bells’ points are not well taken, I do have to say that, after a while, I began to wonder about the personal responsibility of those taking the drugs. Bell does eventually, but all too briefly, touch on the personal responsibility issue inherent in the abuse of prescription drugs. He also gives a small nod to the many good things that drug companies have accomplished. After that, though, it’s back to attacking big pharma. Bell does this well and has created a thought provoking, albeit one sided, film in the process.