Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

“RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE” My rating: B- (Now available from Amazon Prime Video)

71 minutes | No MPAA rating

The 20-pound, orange-fanged nutria is a  South American rodent imported to Louisiana during the Great Depression as an alternative to mink farming.

But the furiously reproductive (four litters a year) creatures escaped captivity and made a new home in the swamps and bayous, which they are rapidly destroying with their voracious appetites. The greenery-scarfing nutria have ravaged the natural landscape, bringing on increased flooding; already humans are abandoning towns and farms in low-lying areas because the vegetation that once held back the waters has vanished down the nutrias’ gullets.

This ecological disaster is the subject of “Rodents of Unusual Size” (the tongue-in-cheek title is a line from “The Princess Bride”), a kitchen-sink documentary that finds equal parts humor and horror in the situation.

Directed by Chris Metzler (whose docs about California’s inland Salton Sea and the funk band Fishbone were hits at past Kansas City Film Festivals), Quinn Costello and Jeff Springer, “Rodents…” covers the nutria phenomenon from just about every angle.

We meet bayou denizens whose sole source of income is harvesting nutria and cutting off their ratlike tails to turn in for a $5 bounty. The piled corpses are left to rot.

We encounter fashionistas who have revived the use of nutria fur (apparently the bad juju of wearing the skins of caged animals raised for slaughter doesn’t apply here).

We meet a New Orleans jazz musician who as a sideline cooks up nutria (we’re told it doesn’t taste like chicken).

Actor Wendell Pierce (“Treme”) narrates an animated segment outlining the history of nutria farming.

Though it has a running time of only a bit over an hour, “Rodents…” feels padded. Metzler, Costello and Springer end up repeating themselves to make the film of (barely) feature length; perhaps they would have been better off with a tightly-constructed documentary short.

Nevertheless, there’s enough of interest here to keep us engaged. In the end, it’s a tossup as to whether mankind or rodentkind will emerge victorious.

| Robert W. Butler

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 143 minutes | No MPAA rating

“BLACK SHEEP” (UK, 27 minutes) B
In “Black Sheep” a young black man named Cornelius Walker describes how as a child he was uprooted from his multicultural London neighborhood (his Nigerian parents feared urban violence) and relocated to a tiny burg in Essex.
There he encountered worse racism than he’d ever experienced in the big city. He was cursed and beaten and, in a desperate effort to gain acceptance, even bleached his skin and wore blue contact lenses.
And it worked. Over time Cornelius was taken in by his one-time persecutors;  ironically, to please them he found himself imitating the same violent and racist behavior he sought to escape.
“I wanted love, so I made friends with monsters,” he says.
Ed Perkins and Jonathan Chinn’s doc is about 1/4 talking-head interview with Walker; the rest of the film consists of dramatic re-creations employing actors.  Thirty years ago this format would have earned the contempt of documentary purists. But times change. The result is a devastating look at racism and human nature.
“END GAME” (USA, 40 minutes) A
Movies don’t get more real than “End Game,” Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s gut-twisting/transcendent look at life in a hospital ward dedicated to dying.
Epstein and Friedman  — whose resumes include films as diverse as “The Celluloid Closet,” “Paragraph 175” and “The Times of Harvey Milk” — turn their cameras on the medical professionals, patients and families living and dying in the University of California Med Center in San Francisco.
Over its 40 minutes we get to know a good many of these folk who — unlike the rest of us — can no longer ignore the ultimate reality of death.  They have to decide how they are going to die — not just the medical side but the human side.
“Every moment is still a gift” says one patient; even so, not every patient is willing to endure debilitating treatments in order to gain a few days or weeks.
As you’d expect, the material is explosively emotional. One is left with the utmost respect for the individuals (and their families) who were wiling to share the intimacy of their last days…not to mention the realization that the things happening on screen will undoubtedly happen some day to each and every one of us.
“LIFEBOAT” (USA, 40 minutes) B
Every year thousands of North Africans flee poverty, war, persecution and famine by clambering aboard waterlogged small boats for a dangerous trip to Europe.  One in 18 of them drowns.
Skye Fitzgerald and Bryn Mooser’s “Lifeboat” looks at the efforts of the German non-profit Sea-Watch to rescue these hapless immigrants. Their cameras are aboard one rescue vessel when it comes across three boats carrying more than 1,000 refugees.
It’s an instant humanitarian emergency.  These travelers suffer from dehydration, heat stroke, sea sickness…and there’s a slew of pregnant women, some of whom have gone into labor.
In the relative calm after they’re taken aboard several of these refugees explain where they come from and how they came to be on an overcrowded boat in the middle of the Mediterranean.
The captain of one of the rescue vessels says that with just one turn of the historical cycle the comfortable Western countries could find themselves living a Third World existence…and at that point their residents would become the riffraff that nobody cares about.
“A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN” (USA, 7 minutes) B+
Despite a running time of only 7 minutes, Marshall Curry’s “A Night at the Garden” packs an emotional and intellectual punch that leaves  viewers reeling.
In effect, Curry offers us documentary footage of a 1939 rally in Madison Square Garden attended by 20,000 Nazi supporters.
Not Germans.
No these were red-blooded American citizens who stared lovingly at banners equating George Washington and Adolf Hitler and wildly applauded bombastic make-America-great-again rants from swastika-bedecked orators. At one point a protestor somehow gets onto the stage and is beaten for his efforts while the crowd roars its approval.
One assumes that Curry has edited and shaped this archival footage…or perhaps he just threw it up on the screen as he found it.  In the end it doesn’t matter. “A Night at the Garden” reveals a disturbing bit of American history that today looks all too familiar.
“PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE”  (India, 26 minutes)  B+

The lowly sanitary napkin hardly seems like the flashpoint for a revolution. That is, until you visit parts of rural India, where ignorance of the female anatomy and psyche is so complete that a young man, asked about menstruation, answers: “It’s a kind of illness right? Mostly affects girls?”

Rayka Zahtabchi and Melissa Berton’s “Period. End of Sentence” is about Kotex coming to the sticks.  Or at least a locally-produced sanitary pad, hand-crafted by women (for most, it’s their first paying job) in a small factory and distributed to customers who initially have no idea what it is or how to use it.

Only 10 percent of Indian women use sanitary pads, we’re told.  Which explains why every farming community has a vacant lot or field  littered with hundreds of bloody rags, the result of the female population dealing with their periods in the age-old manner.

In a paternalistic society where menstruation is a taboo subject and girls are told that the prayers of a menstruating female will not be heard, something as seemingly retro as readily available sanitary napkins can become the spearhead of a feminist movement.  And that’s the sort of uplifting momentum
“Period…” sets in motion.

The next generation will be even more informed.

| Robert W. Butler

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83nminutes | No MPAA rating

Most filmic treatments of the Holocaust — be they documentary or fictional — bend toward the atrocities of the Nazi era.

It’s hard to beat billowing smokestacks, jackbooted fascists and piles of naked corpses for compelling cinema.

What’s remarkable is how few films have addressed the fates of Holocaust survivors after their liberation from the camps.

Jon Kean’s “After Auschwitz” does precisely that. It’s not a “scientific” documentary. Oh, it has its fair share of statistics, but mostly it’s based on the  experiences of six women who emigrated to the U.S. (three are now deceased) and survived to tell their tales.

These are, in fact, the same individuals — Eva Beckman, Rena Drexler, Renee Firestone, Erika Jacoby, Lili Majzner and Linda Sherman — who formed the backbone of Kean’s 2007 doc “Swimming in Auschwitz,” which provided a record of the camps as experienced by woman prisoners.

There’s a temptation to believe that the Holocaust story ends with liberation. But beginning a new life from scratch is no easy thing.

As these women point out, their early days of freedom were anything but free. Though the Allies tried to feed them, the food was so rich it acted as poison on nutrition-starved bodies.

Moreover, liberating armies were ill prepared for the medical, psychological and social needs of thousands of former prisoners. There were few services available to the newly freed; resources were sapped just dealing with the corpses (27,000 reportedly at the Bergen-Belsen camp).

It is estimated that one in five survivors died in the first month after liberation.

Some of Kean’s subjects recall wandering into German villages and ransacking homes and stores in an attempt to find proper sustenance. They were, in effect, reduced to criminal status.

Others made their way back to their home towns, often riding on the outside of boxcars. They found the reception anything but welcoming. Countless returning Jews were murdered; many Polish Jews decided they were better off returning to Germany and taking up residence in displaced persons camps.

A majority of survivors learned they were the only members of their families still breathing. Many entered into loveless marriages (“Not a flower in sight,” recalls one woman) simply for the sake of survival. (“It filled a hole.”)

Even after years had passed and they found shelter in the U.S.  these women carried the scars of their experiences.  Depression was common. One says she couldn’t look at a uniformed Boy Scout without thinking of Hitler Youth.

Few related their horrific experiences to their family and friends. Silent suffering was the norm. Over time, though, a couple of these women became spokespersons for other survivors, speaking publicly about what they had been through.

Though filled with powerful images — lots  of vintage newsreels, Army Signal Corps footage, still photos and other visual aids — “After Auschwitz” is in some ways a scattershot affair. The film jumps from subject to subject, with the result that it’s difficult to follow the story arc of any one of these women. It’s also a bit difficult to get a handle on their personalities.

Yet the cumulative effect gets under the viewer’s skin.  Despite the darkness on display, ultimately “After Auschwitz” celebrates the resilience of the human character.

These women survived and prospered, after all. But the pain, one suspects, never goes away.

| Robert W. Butler

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“PICK OF THE LITTER” My rating: B 

81 minutes | No MPAA rating

Even if you’re not a dog lover, “Pick of the Litter” has an AWWWWW factor that’s off the charts.

But canine-generated sentimentality aside, this documentary leaves the viewer deeply impressed by the effort that goes into training a Guide Dog for the Blind, and by the sacrifices of dozens of humans who are behind each animal that completes the program.

Don Hardy Jr. and Dana Nachman’s film begins with the birth of five puppies and follows their growth and training over two years as they prepare to join the ranks of what used to be called “seeing-eye dogs.”

It starts out cute — few things are as heart-melting as a wriggling newborn Labrador retriever — and gradually works its way into some surprisingly territory.

We’re told up front that only three out of every eight dogs bred by the California-based Guide Dogs for the Blind will graduate from the program.  Which means that of our five littermate subjects — the staff names them Potomac, Poppet, Primrose, Patriot and Phil — only two should be expected to make the final cut. And even that’s not guaranteed.

Most will at some point be “career changed,” meaning that they’ll be scrubbed from the program for reasons ranging from intelligence to excitability to the ability to focus on the task at hand.  One of the more intriguing issues raised centers on how much of the failure is due to the individual animal’s nature and how much to the shortcomings of  its human handlers.


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90 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Every liberal -minded American should see “American Chaos.”

Good luck with that.

Because however insightful it may be, Jim Stern’s documentary about Trump supporters is almost too painful to watch.

The film begins with a montage of Presidential campaign newsreel footage, starting with Teddy Roosevelt and ending with Donald Trump.

Stern then goes on to describe himself as growing up in a classic Kennedy Democrat household in Chicago. He still reveres Bobby Kennedy, whom he describes as generating “a feeling of empathy so deep it was infectious.”  Not until Obama did he feel a similar level of enthusiasm for a Presidential candidate.

But shortly after the beginning of the 2016 race Stern noticed something different about Trump and his adherents, something that bothered him so much that he grabbed his camera and spent several months crisscrossing America to interview Trump  voters.

The resulting documentary doesn’t tell us anything we haven’t heard elsewhere, but it’s interesting /frightening to hear these citizens explain their support.

Stern went into these conversations knowing that he wasn’t going to debate with his subjects, make snide comments or even speak disapprovingly of Trump (which doesn’t mean you can’t catch him biting his tongue on numerous occasions). He genuinely wanted to know what these folks believed…and why.


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“McQUEEN”  My rating: B-  

111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

That designer Alexander McQueen was an artistic genius is beyond debate.

The question posed — and only partially answered — by the new documentary “McQueen” is: “Just how screwed up was he?”

McQueen hanged himself in 2010 on the eve of his mother’s funeral. During his two decades in fashion he had gone from impeccably tailored Saville Row suits for men to bizarre runway shows that often were more about performance art — and indulging his own  obsessions — than about creating a sellable line.

He was a rebel and a disruptor. One of his most notorious shows — 1995’s Highland Rape — featured disheveled models who seemed to have stumbled away from a sexual assault. The fashion world was appalled and many condemned the young designer as a misogynist.

Ian Bonhomie and Peter Ettedgul’s film dispels that notion — women were among McQueen’s best friends and most loyal collaborators — but it never does nail the sources of their subject’s neuroses and inspirations.


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Fred Rogers


94 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The story of Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian minister who for three decades starred in, wrote and scored PBS’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” is heartwarming, inspiring, funny, aspirational and, alas, kind of depressing.

Depressing because in Donald Trump’s America there is no longer room for a television mentor who eschews technical sophistication and speaks directly to children about their hopes and fears. Who tells every kid that he or she matters.

“Love is at the root of everything,” Rogers tells us in an old interview. “Love or the lack of it.”

This moving, yea, tear-inducing documentary from Morgan Neville (“20 Feet from Stardom,” “Best of Enemies”) lays out the Mr. Rogers saga from its early days at a Pittsburgh station to Eddie Murphy’s parody on “SNL” and, much later, charges that Rogers was singlehandedly responsible for a generation of entitled underachievers who bought his line that “You are special.”

Among other things, Rogers is credited with saving public broadcasting. In 1969 Richard Nixon was preparing to strip PBS of its federal funding to help pay for the Vietnam War.  At a Congressional hearing a nervous Rogers set aside his prepared text and charmed the committee members by reciting the lyrics to his song “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel?”  Thick-skinned Sen. John Pastore, previously unfamiliar with Rogers’ work, was blown away: “Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”

This doc proves conclusively that Fred Rogers the man was precisely as he appeared on the little screen — an impossibly decent and compassionate guy who cared deeply about children and quietly reveled in their love (and without the faintest whiff of pedophilia).

In most regards Neville has given us a straightforward docubio: Lots of talking-head testimony from Roger’s family and co-workers, psychologists and even cellist Yo Yo Ma, who as a young man appeared on the show and became a lifelong devotee. Of course there’s tons of broadcast footage.  Backstage photos and home movies. Even some newly animated sequences that illustrate Rogers’ philosophy through Daniel, the hand puppet Tiger who was his almost constant onscreen sidekick and alter ego. (There’s footage of Rogers meeting with kids and pulling his puppets from a bag…the youngsters immediately begin talking to the felt creatures on his hands.)

For those of us too old to have experienced the Rogers magic (I was already in college when his show went national) it has been easy to dismiss him as laughably square and painfully low tech. With hindsight these become the finest of virtues — especially when contrasted with the hyperactive/overtly cruel nonsense that makes up most of children’s programming. (more…)

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blackfish“BLACKFISH” My rating: B+ (Opening Aug. 16 at the Tivoli )

83 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Let’s assume that the documentary “Blackfish” – about killer whales in captivity – is an honest effort, that it doesn’t manipulate the facts for propaganda purposes.

Granted, that’s a big assumption. We all got burned a couple of years back by “The Cove,” a doc that blamed marine theme parks for the annual mass slaughter of dolphins in Japan.

Later, after “The Cove” had won the Oscar for best feature documentary, we learned that Japanese fishermen have been rounding up and killing dolphins for at least a century because the mammals compete with them for fish. Moreover, marine theme parks no longer capture wild dolphins, relying instead on breeding programs. Which meant that the film’s entire premise was pretty much bogus.

“Blackfish” also condemns the marine theme park industry, but by focusing exclusively on the biggest animals in these menageries – the magnificent black-and-white orcas  – Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film stands on much firmer journalistic ground.

But at the same time it’s a hugely emotional experience. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself bawling. I’ m talking about a full-bore, nose-blowing rush of pathos.

The main subject here is a whale named Tilikum who made headlines in 2010 when he killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau.  SeaWorld-Orlando claimed that Brancheau, an experienced whale handler, was targeted by Tillicum because she wore her hair in a ponytail.

But as “Blackfish” shows, Tillicum was a killer long before that. In fact, this one whale was already responsible for two other human deaths. (more…)

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Jeremy Scahill...looking for the story

Jeremy Scahill…looking for the story

“DIRTY WARS” My rating: B (Opens June 28 at the Tivoli)

90 minutes | No MPAA rating

“Dirty Wars” might be termed a “documentary thriller.”

Rick Rowley’s film follows freelance journalist Jeremy Scahill, who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan for The Nation and written the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army).

Scahill is attempting to get the story behind an increasing number of disturbing execution/massacres of apparently innocent civilians in Afghanistan and, later, Yemen.

Unlike most embedded journalists, who live with American troops and tend to unconsciously adopt their perspective, Scahill is fiercely independent. He talks to the villagers who have lost family and friends in mysterious nighttime raids or sudden missile strikes. He tracks down local warlords. And through his dogged reporting, he clearly is a threat to this unseen conspiracy.

At one point we see footage of a TV appearance in which Jay Leno asks Scahill: “Why are you still alive?”

The first half of “Dirty Wars” takes place prior to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It is during this time that Scahill catches wind of a massive secret U.S. apparatus taking directions from the White House.  This Joint Special Operations Command apparently operates free of the usual rules of engagement, shrugging off civilian deaths — even massive ones — as simply an unavoidable by-product of the War on Terror.

With Ben Laden’s death, however, the JSOC stepped into the spotlight and took its bow. And with its new semi-transparency Scahill realizes that the organization’s efforts are far more massive and widespread than even he imagined.


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Daughter and dad: Sarah and Michael Polley

Daughter and dad: Sarah and Michael Polley

“STORIES WE TELL”  My rating: B+  (Opening June 7 at the Tivoli )

108 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Over the last 20 years we’ve grown accustomed to the “personal documentary” in which a filmmaker’s own life becomes the subject of his/her nonfiction film. Standout examples include Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March” and Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation.”

But I cannot recall anything quite like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell,” an investigation into the secrets of her family, her parents’ marriage and her own birth.

Polley is, of course, the Canadian actress (“Dawn of the Dead,” “The Sweet Hereafter”) who has established herself as a very promising director with “Away from Her” (a superb film about Alzheimer’s) and “Take This Waltz” (about an unfaithful wife…I was less enraptured of that one).

“Stories We Tell” begins with Polley accompanying an elderly man up several flights of stairs to a Toronto recording studio. The man is her father, Michael Polley, an actor, who sits before a microphone reading from his own memoir about his marriage to Diane Polley, Sarah’s late mother.

We quickly learn that we’ll be hearing family stories from others of the Polley clan, including Sarah’s two sisters and two brothers, who submit to “interrogation” by their younger sibling with varying degrees of charm and discomfort. Also testifying are aunts, uncles, family friends, and others.


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