Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

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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vreeland“DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE MUST TRAVEL” My rating: A- (Opening Jan. 18 at the Tivoli)

86 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

“A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere,” Diana Vreeland says in the new documentary about her life.

“It’s the life you live in the dress.”

That attitude is what made Vreeland (1903-1989) not only the most important fashion editor ever (she spent most of her career at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue) but one of the major cultural forces of the 20th century.

As someone who knew Vreeland by name only (I knew she was big in fashion but couldn’t tell you why), “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” is a major revelation. Vreeland wasn’t a designer – she didn’t create fashion — but on the pages of her magazines she presented it in such a way that fashion became more than just clothes. It became a philosophy of life.

This terrific documentary was made by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law. Perhaps it is that intimacy that makes the film work…the director knew the best of her subject but she also knew where the bodies were buried. The resulting film is complex, insightful and (Vreeland herself would demand this) thoroughly entertaining.

Much of that is due to Vreeland herself. She was an ugly woman (sorry, there’s no getting around it) but she was so smart and had such a fabulous sense of style that looks didn’t matter.

vreeland 2She was a wit, an eccentric (who late in life began applying flaming rouge not only to her cheeks but to her ears), a lover of the arts, a denizen of Harlem nightclubs. When she went to work for Harper’s Bazaar in 1937 (after spending a decade in London, where she befriended Coco Chanel and ran her own lingerie store) she began writing a regular column called “Why Don’t You?”  After a few years she became the magazine’s fashion editor.

She discovered Lauren Bacall (then a young model) and helped Jackie Kennedy achieve her “look.” But more than anything else the photographs and layouts she oversaw for the magazine changed the way people viewed and thought about clothes.  Vreeland was to fashion was Ayn Rand was to pompous selfishness.

The film doesn’t hide the fact that the hard-working, fashion-obsessed Vreeland usually was an absentee wife and mother (her sons seem hardly to have known her).  She could exasperate her employees and colleagues with her demands (which more often than not were right on, aesthetically speaking).

And, like Oscar Wilde, she valued style far above substance. Indeed, it’s difficult to say whether she had any political, moral, religious or social convictions beyond her admiration for beauty and pleasure.

But she had an outsized personality that was impossible to ignore.

“Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” benefits hugely from archival interviews its subject conducted over the years. And the filmmakers cannily have taken the written transcripts of a series of conversations between Vreeland and George Plimpton and had sound-alike actors bring them to life.  These become the documentary’s narrative underpinnings.

I wish I’d known her.

| Robert W. Butler

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house 3“THE HOUSE I LIVE IN” My rating: B (Opening Jan. 11 at the Tivoli)

108 minutes | NO MPAA rating

Whatever its noble intentions, the so-called War on Drugs isn’t any closer to ending than it was forty-some years ago when President Richard Nixon took up the cause.

If anything it has proven itself to be a self-perpetuating circus, one that enriches very bad, violent people, while imprisoning hundreds of thousands who should be receiving treatment instead of jail sentences.

Eugene Jarecki, whose documentary output includes “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” “Freakonomics” and “Why We Fight” (he’s also the brother of Andrew “Capturing the Friedmans” Jarecki), has spent the last five years crisscrossing America to create this powerful, fact-filled and deeply disturbing non-fiction film.

There are plenty of statistics (a telling one: the U.S. imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized country, with most of those serving time for drug violations), but “The House I Live In” is remarkable for the personal stories it brings to the table.

Jarecki begins the film on a highly personal note by introducing us to Nannie Jeter, an elderly black woman who was the housekeeper for the Jarecki family when Eugene was young. He played with Nannie’s children; now he checks back in with the family to find it shattered by drugs.

Our nominal guide throughout the movie is TV producer David Simon, a formers journalist who covered the War on Drugs and went on to create the fictional HBO series “The Wire,” which over several seasons explored the dangerous, complicated, exasperating labyrinth of drug use, drug peddling, and drug enforcement in his hometown of Baltimore.

(This was a TV show that during one season had a high-ranking police officer create a no-arrest zone in which drug dealers and users could conduct business in safety; the precipitous decline in street crime wasn’t enough to save the cop from a tidal wave of  Calvinism-fueled moral outrage.)


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brooklyn“BROOKLYN CASTLE” My rating: B (Opens Jan. 11 at the Tivoli)

101 minutes | MPAA rating: PG

The cool kids at Brooklyn’s I.S. 318 aren’t football players or cheerleaders. They’re chess nerds.

For more than 20 years the adolescent chess enthusiasts from this middle school have dominated the game, winning national championship after national championship.

Katie Dellamaggiore’s documentary follows these kids – the vast majority from impoverished families — over a couple of years, getting into the ethos that has made the 318’s chess team so successful while chronicling the NYC public school budget crunch that threatens not just the chess players but virtually all after-school activities.

Like “Spellbound” (about kids preparing for the national spelling bee) and “Mad Hot Ballroom” (New York small fry gearing up for a ballroom dance competition), “Brooklyn Castle” benefits from young, amusing, enthusiastic subjects, built-in suspense (who’ll walk away with the trophies?), and a conviction that our future rests with our young people.

I don’t think it’s as good as film as those other two examples of the genre. Perhaps I’ve been down this cinematic road a few too many times already…or maybe it has something to do with my own lack of interest in the game.


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Filmmaker Arno Goldfinger...pondering a perplexing past

Filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger…pondering a perplexing past

“THE FLAT” My rating: B (Opening Dec. 9 at the Tivoli)

97 minutes | No MPAA rating

A real-life detective story with far-reaching implications, “The Flat” is a  worthy addition to the genre of Holocaust-related cinema.

But Arnon Goldfinger’s celebrated documentary – it’s been playing in theaters in Israel for more than a year  —  isn’t about cattle cars and gas chambers. It’s about human curiosity and human denial.

Five years ago filmmaker Goldfinger’s grandmother, Gerta Tuchler, died at age 98 in Tel Aviv. Born in Germany, Gerta left behind in her apartment more than 70 years’ worth of clothing (lots of creepy fox wraps and dozens of pairs of fancy ladies’ gloves) and evidence of her early life that her children and grandchildren knew nothing about.

The first clue was a yellowing Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff  (The Attack), with an article about a trip to Palestine in the mid-1930s taken by Goldfinger’s grandparents, accompanied by Baron Leopold von Mildenstein, a German “journalist,” and Mildenstein’s wife.

The trip, as described by Mildenstein in the article, was to evaluate the suitability of Palestine as a destination for German Jews.  The idea, at that time anyway, was that Jews could be shipped out of the Reich and relocated to another part of the world.


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Nicholas Barclay, age 13

“THE IMPOSTER” My rating: A- (Opening Nov. 9 at the Tivoli)

99 minutes | MPAA rating: R

If a Hollywood feature film came along to tell the same story related in the new doc “The Imposter,” I’d write it off as a typical bit of Tinseltown overstatement and the product of a screenwriter with a tenuous grasp on reality.

(In fact, it did become a feature film, 2010’s “The Chameleon” with Ellen Barkin and Famke Janssen. The movie never played in KC.)

But “The Imposter” is the real deal, a hair-raising, gut knotting true-life tragedy that will leaving you brooding and marveling.

In 1994 13-year-old Nicholas Barclay failed to return to his suburban San Antonio home after spending an evening  playing video games on a nearby military base. No trace of him was ever found.

His mother, Beverly Dollarhide, older sister Carey Gibson, and other family members mourned, got angry, sought answers, and finally accepted that they’d never know what happened to Nick.

Then, three years later, they received word from authorities in a small Spanish city that Nick had been found. He had a story of being kidnapped, kept as a sexual slave, and living as a homeless teen. Now he was being held in a youth facility, waiting for a family member to come get him.

Only it wasn’t Nicholas at all, but rather a 23-year-old French man named Frederic Bourdin. Bourdin’s eyes and hair were a different color than Nicholas’ and he spoke English with a French accent.  Yet Nicholas’ blue-collar clan brought him to America, embraced him, nurtured him, and got him therapy for the many traumas he had experienced. They were completely taken in.


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“SOMEWHERE BETWEEN” My rating: C+  (Opening Nov. 2 at the Tivoli)

88 minutes | No MPAA rating

The adolescent girls who are the focus of the documentary “Somewhere Between” often refer to themselves as Oreos: White on the inside, yellow (or Chinese) on the outside.

Linda Goldstein Knowlton’s documentary concentrates on four girls born in China, abandoned by their parents (China’s one-child-per-family policy has pushed thousands of couples to give up their female offspring until a more-prized boy comes along) and adopted by Americans.

In most respects these girls (they’re not young women yet, though a couple exhibit a maturity far beyond their years) are thoroughly Americanized. They tend to be high achievers. One is a fervent Christian. Another is determined to be the first Chinese-American to perform on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry.

But they’re still children, emotionally vulnerable and, despite their happy circumstances, torn by the fact that they weren’t wanted by their birth parents.

The film runs on two parallel tracks. There’s the story of their lives in the U.S.: birthday parties, church services, sports, academics, boyfriends.

And then there are the efforts (often hopeless, but sometimes remarkably successful) of these girls to discover their birth parents back in China. In at least one case this results in a girl discovering her father, two older sisters and a little brother.

We meet an adoptive mother who has launched a charity to send relief aid to abandoned children in China and spend time on a European tour sponsored by a worldwide support organization for adopted Chinese girls.

My main problem with “Somewhere Between” is not with the information it imparts, but in the relative dryness of the delivery. Knowlton exhibits competance but not much real inspiration.

Still, for families that have adopted Chinese girls or are thinking of doing so, the film is required viewing.

| Robert W. Butler

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