Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

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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Happy people 1“HAPPY PEOPLE: A YEAR IN THE TAIGA ” My rating: B (Opening March 22 at the Tivoli)

95 minutes | No MPAA rating

In recent years filmmaker Werner Herzog has gravitated toward documentaries dealing with man’s relationship to nature:  “Grizzly Man” about an eccentric eaten by the wild bears he adored,  “Encounters at the End of the World” about the snowbound residents of an Antarctic research station…even “Cavern of Forgotten Dreams” about cave paintings left behind by Stone Age artists.

“Happy People: A Year in the Taiga” seems to fit nicely among those other titles,  but in fact it’s a weird hybrid.

This 90-minute film about the residents of a remote Siberian village was fashioned by Herzog from a four-hour Russian TV documentary directed by Dmitry Vasyukov. With Vasyukov’s input Herzog wrote his own English narration and re-edited scenes without ever setting foot in Siberia.

How closely this film hews to the Russian original is anybody’s guess. At some later date scholars may have a heyday comparing the two to show how even documentary footage can be molded to serve a filmmaker’s intent.

Any way you slice it, though, it’s an effective example of the ethnology documentary.

 “Happy People” focuses on Bakhta, a burg of 300 souls so remote it can be reached only by aircraft or (during the brief summer) river boat.

The film’s title notwithstanding, not everyone in Bakhta is happy.  Certainly not the indigenous folk who must contend with widespread alcoholism and lives of menial labor. (more…)

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Place_at_the_Table-620x348“A PLACE AT THE TABLE” My rating: B+  (Opening March 15 at the Tivoli)

84 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

How can one in six Americans not know where their next meal is coming from?

I mean, this is the land of plenty where supermarkets routinely throw out millions of dollars in perfectly edible food because they’re nearing their expiration dates or the produce is bruised.

Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush’s “A Place at the Table” provides an easy to understand (if not easy to stomach) overview of how we got to this sad state of affairs where even those who do have meal money often opt for high-calorie, low-nutrition foods.

This doc blends a reasoned approach (no indignant grandstanding) with extremely slick presentation (excellent cinematography, a killer score by T-Bone Burnett).  The results aren’t exactly grab-you-by-the-lapels dramatic, but seeing this film pretty much guarantees you’ll never look at the American diet in the same way.

“Table” examines the crisis of “food insecurity” by focusing on families in both small towns and big cities.

The film traces the history of farm subsidies, created in the last century to preserve family farms.  Of course, today farming is largely a corporate affair, but those agribusinesses still suck up subsidy money.

Jeff Bridges

Jeff Bridges

Just as bad, most of that money is funneled into the production of certain crops (wheat, corn, rice), thus artificially depressing their prices. As a result, poor families can afford heavily processed fast food but not fresh produce, which is more expensive.

And there’s yet another problem: In many urban (and even rural) areas, there simply are no groceries offering fresh food. Everything available is out of a can, a box or a freezer.  Eating unprocessed food on a few dollars a day is impossible.

The bigger story, of course, is that in our current economy families that thought themselves middle class now find themselves among the impoverished. (Even more insulting is the case of the hard-working mom who earned $2 too much to qualify for food assistance.)

“A Place at the Table” even boasts of a little star power, thanks to the presence of Oscar winner Jeff Bridges, who two decades ago created the End Hunger Network.

We’re due for a big national discussion of hunger. This is a good place to start.

| Robert W. Butler


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56 up“56 UP” My rating: A- (Opening March 8 at the Screenland Crown Center)

144 minutes | No MPAA rating

Every seven years for the last half-century, director Michael Apted has turned his camera on a group of former British schoolchildren he first encountered in 1964 when they were only seven years old and he was an assistant with the BBC.

The idea back then was to take a dozen or so kids from all sorts of social and economic backgrounds and follow them for…well, for as long as they would tolerate it. There undoubtedly were political/sociological gears turning behind the project — one suspects the creators of the “7 Up” series envisioned it becoming an indictment of the British class system.

But over time it has become something even more powerful…a study of the stages of life we all go through, of marriages and divorces, careers established and lost, of becoming parents and losing parents, of love and loneliness, wealth and poverty.

Now we have “56 Up,” with the 14 former children now on the brink of senior citizenship.


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Damiel Echols...before his release from prison

Damiel Echols…before his release from prison

“WEST OF MEMPHIS” My rating: B  (Opens March 8 )

147 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The infamous case of the West Memphis Three – teens convicted of the Satanic 1993 murders of three boys – has already been the subject of three first-rate documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky: “Paradise Lost: The child Murders at Robin hood Hills” (1996), “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000) and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (2011).

Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” though, benefits from being the first film on the subject since the three accused murderers – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. – were released last year after their lawyers successfully argued that new evidence (much of it disseminated through the Berlinger and Sinofsky docs) warranted an appeal in front of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“West of Memphis” (produced by Hobbit-lord Peter Jackson) tries to be encyclopedic…and with a running time of 2 ½ hours it not only recycles  well-known details of the case (sloppy investigative work, the prejudicial witch-hunt atmosphere during the trial) but takes side-trips into new revelations and accusations.

There’s some really fascinating stuff here, like an experiment using dead pigs to show that the marks on the bodies of the murder victims were not signs of ritual torture (as maintained by the prosecution) but rather were the results of turtle bites inflicted while the dead boys floated in a water-filled ditch.


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