20 posts categorized "documentary"


When the pitchman becomes the pitch, man

Before it runs low on exposé fire-in-the-gut power, which it does at about the three-quarter pole, Morgan Spurlock's latest crusading documentary comes across as a capital(istic) idea.

If the title, "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" appears a little unusual, that's because Spurlock sold the title rights to the makers of pomegranate drinks for a million smackers.

That's right, Spurlock's effort to expose the evils of product placement in movies and other areas of our lives prostitutes itself, commercially speaking, in what the filmmaker must hope will be for the good of mankind and the profit of one Mr. Morgan Spurlock.

Whether he's stuffing McDonald's french fries into his body to the point of projectile nausea in the previous documentary "Super Size Me" (2004) or traipsing around the Middle East in search of Osama Bin Laden (2008), Spurlock appears to love the thrill of the chase.

Spurlock likes to kid around and insert humor as he overturns soiled rocks to reveal ills of the world. He has that in common with Michael Moore, his Oscar-winning ("Bowling for Columbine") peer.

The difference between the two remains Spurlock's limitations in gutting his foe and hanging his catch on a hook for a gripping trophy shot. Moore remains the master in filling a movie screen with the painful and sometimes comic ironies of life, whether it be corporate greed or a woman selling rabbits for "pets or meat."

Spurlock, try as he will, has never mined that kind of documentary gold.

In "Greatest Movie Ever Sold," the likable crusader of justice for all makes cold calls to gather clients willing to opt in with big bucks to finance the movie and shine a spotlight on, well, opting in. He even wears his labels on a NASCAR-like suit peppered with corporate logos, and he wears it proudly.

Spurlock eventually fills his coffer. Yet the filmmaker's money shot (rubba-dub-dub, a filmmaker, a kid and a Shetland pony in a tub) comes from a company that opted out.

And we come to the ultimate question: Should this movie be a hit or not?

If Spurlock and the film company make money off of an exposé about the evils of product placement in movies, isn't that a little like putting the cart before the soapy Shetland pony?


'Cats' -- Way off-off-Broadway and real

So much for the carefree hakuna matata (No worries for the rest of your days) when it comes to the nature documentary "African Cats."

The circle of life plays out in harsh reality in the third modern-day feature from the Disneynature division of the Mouse House.

Co-directed by seasoned nature filmmakers Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill ("Deep Blue," "Earth"), "African Cats" does an excellent job of showcasing chosen lions and cheetahs as they live, love, hunt and fight for survival in Kenya's savanna.

Unlike Disney's beloved "Lion King," which had its share of life-or-death situations, "African Cats" makes it clear from the opening credits that survival of the fittest in this wild will eventually get around to the sad facts of unfortunate life.

Whether this G-rated film is suited for "general audiences; all ages admitted" is best up to parents, of course. The gritty nature of the subject matter (lions attacking lions, a lion standing down a hissing alligator, etc.), however, would make it impossible for this critic to expose the harsh real world to a child under the age of 7 or so.

Samuel L. Jackson, a very able actor, narrates "African Cats" with enthusiasm. By giving all the key animals names, though, the filmmakers blur the line between entertainment and what could have been a spectacular fly-on-the-wall approach to just allowing nature to run its course on its own terms.

There's no question Scholey and Fothergill, as well as their talented crew, showed admirable patience over the course of more than two years to allow the captured saga to play out.

In "African Cats," the audience gets equal doses of playful lion cubs or newborn cheetahs tumbling over each other as they depend on Mom for protection and guidance.

In the real world, though, as is shown here, not all babies survive. And the hyenas that strike during a brilliantly photographed storm really do appear to be laughing, eerily, at their prey.

The directors are careful not to show bloody kills and graphic mating.

I wonder, then, if their attempts to shield the audience from the harshest reality is short-changing the "nature" half of the Disneynature business plan?


Walking the line, barfing the barf

"I'm Still Here," which is at times desolate, desperate, shocking and unbelievably sad, is Joaquin Phoenix's version of "Eat Pray Love."

The lost year (or longer) for the mentally tormented and seemingly self-destructive two-time Academy Award nominee would more aptly be titled "Drugs, Rant, Barf."

Phoenix, constantly ranting and desperately, it seems (if it's for real),  in need of intervention, lashes out verbally at close associates in extended screaming rants.  When they subside, Phoenix and his associates concentrate on his new career as a heavily bearded rapper.  When Phoenix finally chases down would-be hip-hop mentor Sean "P. Ditty" Combs, Combs asks Phoenix if his new calling is just a lark.

Hoax or not, and I'm leaning in the direction of not, "I'm Still Here" is a backstage (and often bathroom) pass to Phoenix's year or so of living dangerously, both professionally and personally.

There are some compelling moments.  The now infamous appearance on David Letterman's "Late Show" is covered in detail and with added insight.  That entire day was a blur for drugged-out Phoenix, who also had commitments that day to promote the premiere of his final (so far) film "Two Lovers."

A moment or "scene" where Phoenix instructs the limo driver to pull over so he can breakdown at the side of the freeway is either very good acting or a point where someone -- and this could be you Mr. Affleck -- jumps in to get Phoenix some help.

If Phoenix's antics turn out to be an elaborated Andy Kaufman-like orchestrated hoax, it's a darn good one.

Certainly this documentary, if that's what it is, isn't entertainment by any stretch of the imagination.  The director is very good actor Casey Affleck ("Gone Baby Gone"), Ben Affleck's younger brother and Phoenix's brother-in-law.

Now the sticky wicket, so to speak, in verifying "I'm Still Here" as nonfiction.  In the film's sparse production notes, Phoenix and first-time director Affleck are listed as co-writers and co-producers.

Granted, the credits for documentaries sometime list writers when there's narration to connect scenes.

There's no such thing going on in "I'm Still Here," however.  A camera hones in on the talented, but conflicted actor who drew his second Oscar nomination channeling the late Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line."  Phoenix blurts out in the fall of 2008 that he's through with acting, that he's launching a hip-hop singing career.

That quickly becomes a nightmare for his agent, manager and inner circle of assistants.  "I'm Still Here" begins with a home video circa 1981 taken in Panama.  Joaquin, a child in a bathing suit, is trying to summon up the courage to jump off a rock into a waterfall fed pool.  

Cut to 2008 and a bloated, mumbling Phoenix shrouded in a blue hoodie says:

"Hate me or like me.  Just don't misunderstand me."

The first two requests are ultimately up to Phoenix, not us.

The third?  Impossible using "I'm Still Here" as a guidepost. 


The F-bomb-laced path less traveled

What were you doing during the summer of 1988?

Motor home pitchman Jack Rebney was having an expletive-laced meltdown in Iowa.

Years later, his fly-swatting, F-bomb-laced tirade surfaced as one of the Internet's first viral videos.

University of Texas at Austin film professor Ben Steinbauer was fascinated by the very funny -- as in someone slips on a banana peel funny -- burst of wacky outbursts of outrage.  But he wondered about something else.

Whatever happened to this guy; the middle-aged bundle of frustration named Jack Rebney?

The documentary "Winnebago Man," directed, co-written and co-produced by Steinbauer, takes the audience along on a cold path to find what turns out to be a self-professed hermit living in the hills of Northern California.

"Winnebago Man" doesn't aim to bring down institutions that have done wrong by the little guy, as Oscar-winning documentarian Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine") likes to do. 

This one's all about a little guy; an angry little guy who retreated from society.  Now in his mid-70s, Rebney has mellowed only slightly.  He's quite willing to stand in front of his local Walmart and rant against the politicians that have and are, as my own father used to say, "sending this country to hell in a hand basket."

Steinbauer makes his feature film debut with "Winnebago Man."  Soft-spoken and perhaps a little shy, he may be missing some revelations by letting Rebney call all the shots.

We all have a story to tell, however.  And Rebney's reclusive life as a reluctant, but lately compliant (you'll see how in the documentary) "angry man" is fascinating, if not terribly revealing.


Oliver Stone's South American prez tour

Say what you will about Oliver Stone, the multi-Academy Award winning filmmaker.  But the guy is no slouch when it comes to gaining access.

Stone, no stranger to cinematic politics with Oscar noms for "Nixon," "JFK" and "Salvador" and a win for "Born on the Fourth of July," took a little road trip to South America in January, 2009.

His offbeat, odd little documentary, "South of the Border," is a filmed diary of a trek to visit controversial Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that expanded to five countries and chats with seven presidents of the region.

While it fascinates for much of its short running time of just under 80 minutes, filmgoers might be a little startled by what jumps out of them at times.

Stone, looking like he's about to pop a shirt button and perhaps start an international incident at any moment, obviously wants to show that Chávez isn't the monster the "mainstream U.S. media makes him out to be."

Stone kicks a soccer ball around with some South American leaders, sips a little Chardonnay with others and spends quite a bit of screen time fawning about how different some of them are compared to their political reps in El Norte.

During visits with Chávez, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Lula da Silva of Brazil and even Cuba's Raúl Castro  (and others), Stone lobs the kind of softball questions entertainment journalists have been tossing him at film junket interviews for decades.

It's more amusing most of the time than journalistically intriguing, really.  Stone's lazy, soft voice is no challenge to the hard-hitting style of Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Michael Moore ("Bowling for Columbine," "Sicko").  There is some appeal, but it springs from feisty, casually entertaining moments instead of in-your-face, confrontational hard questions.

With Stone, at least where "South of the Border" (which contains some subtitles) is concerned, the getting there and rubbing shoulders with South American leaders appears to be the primary interest.

That and taking shots at conservative U.S. media, of course.


'Joan Rivers' peels away celebrity layers

"Oh, oh, can we talk?"

That Joan Rivers signature line never pops up in the soul-rattling documentary "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work."  Instead, we get the most obsessed, success-driven 76-year-old you'll likely ever meet with all pretense peeled away.

That, in itself, is astonishing news.  To many casual observers, Joan Rivers represents the exact opposite, a symbol of repeated plastic surgeries to hide, or at least fend off, the reality of aging.

Yet in front of the camera of directing and producing partners Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg ("The Devil Came on Horseback," "The Trials of Darryl Hunt"), Rivers arrives and struggles to survive the treacherous, shark-infested show biz waters as an unabashed 76-year-old with more drive than most twentysomethings.

I'll reveal right up front that I arrived at the "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work" screening with high anticipation.  Not because I was primed for live performances and acerbic zingers from the "grand dame" of female comedians (Phyllis Diller might have something to say about that), but because it promised a rare behind-the-scenes look.

I was not disappointed.  Perhaps stunned a little, at times, but hardly left wanting for insight into Rivers in her 76th year.  That was 2009, a year when the couch potato public saw the determined show biz warrior survive even her own daughter Melissa to take the Season 2 winner's prize on Donald Trump's NBC reality  TV series "The Celebrity Apprentice."

The most revealing moments for me come when Rivers allows cameras into her opulent home.  She's in tears because her beloved dog has just died, or she reveals a mostly event-less performance calendar; a kiss of near-death for any performer.  Yet Rivers, a gifted comic who still longs to be taken seriously as an actress, is best summed up by a booking agent who gets to the pulsating heart of Rivers' drive:

"Joan Rivers will stand out in the rain longer than anyone else waiting for lightning to strike.  After everyone else has given up and gone inside, she's still out there in the rain.  Waiting."

That's the heart and soul of "Joan Rivers -- A Piece of Work," the most informatory backstage documentary I've ever had the pleasure of barely enduring.
"Comedian, the 2002 documentary with a self-absorbed title, chronicled Jerry Seinfeld’s return to stand-up comedy.  But it just scratched the surface of a comic’s self-doubt and anger compared to this.
Oh, oh, can we talk?


Come on 'Babies,' light my fire

Call me a cinematic crybaby if you must, but I was expecting a little more from "Babies," the documentary chronicling the development of newborns around the world over a two-year period.

Maybe I've been spoiled by British filmmaker Michael Apted's brilliant growth-spurt study of British lads and lasses in the "Up" series, which drops in on the subjects every seven years to update their life stories.

Before I get run out of town for failing to cheer the innocent gurgles of newborns in San Francisco, Tokyo, Mongolia and Namibia of "Babies,"  however, know that French director Thomas Balmès successfully captures first gurgles, early crawling and shaky steps in four distinctively different environments.

It's an unusual documentary, though, because there's no interaction between the filmmaker and his subjects.  We see young personalities emerge somewhat, but never do the parents utter a word to the filmmaker about their relationship with their new child.

It's a bit like a visit to a human zoo, really.  We get closeup views of little Hattie in San Francisco being given all the comforts a U.S. child can enjoy.  That contrasts abruptly (in fact, a little shockingly at times) with Ponijao, the eighth of nine children of the Namibian family.

Ponijao might just be the happiest baby of the foursome featured.  And that's despite crawling around in dirt much of the time and competing with flies for mother's milk.  Yet no narrator verifies the happiness of an African family in an environment that will seem not only remote, but primitive to many viewers.

This was all the brainchild of French producer/actor Alain Chabat, who played Napoleon in  "Night at the Museum:  Battle of the Smithsonian" last year.  Chabat, according to the film's press notes, thought it would be fascinating to watch vastly different newborns adjust to their surroundings, their families, their pets and the wide, wide world itself from the time they're born until they stand -- a little wobbly perhaps -- on their own feet.

I agree.  For some reason, however, the magic you might expect never really generates.  All four of the children are adorable, of course.  The awwwww factor is definitely present throughout.

But even as the Japanese and U.S. babies romp with their mommies in mother-child class groups and the two in the plains of Mongolia and a village in Namibia grow up in earthy, basic homes, the fascination level diminishes rapidly.

For all its promise, "Babies" makes 79 minutes feel like a near-eternity.  Let's put it this way.  The toddlers weren't the only ones who enjoyed a little nap time.


Where there's a will, but not a way

The best documentaries aim the sunlight of public exposure into the shadows of dirty dealings and deceit.

Say what you will about Michael Moore.  But by infusing humor and, yes, himself, into serious issues such as General Motors pulling out of his hometown, shady politics and health insurance, Moore has at least primed the pump of public thinking.

"The Art of the Steal," directed by Don Argott (who also serves as cinematographer), takes a straightforward, somber approach.  The rock overturned is a huge one, though; the long and vocal struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation art collection valued somewhere between $25-$30 billion.

Hardly posturing Philadelphia as the City of Brotherly Love, "The Art of the Steal" states a strong case in the other direction.  Dr. Albert Barnes made his fortune in pharmaceutical research after the turn of the 20th century.  By the 1920s he had turned his attention and considerable zeal to art collecting.

He also, according to the long list of the documentary interviewees, got crossways with Philadelphia politicians,  When he set up The Barnes Foundation, a world-class collection of Post-Impressionist and early modern art, it was five miles outside the Philadelphia city limits in Lower Merion.

It doesn't take long to grasp the idea that Barnes, who was married but had no children, also held the notion of art collections as tourist attractions in utter contempt.  His collection, arranged by theme in wall ensembles in intimate rooms, was intended -- and for decades sternly operated -- as an educational facility rather than a museum.

After his sudden death in 1951, "The Art of the Steal" contends, politicians and wealthy Philadelphia citizens began to conspire to get their hands on Barnes' collection of Cézannes, Matisses, Picassos, Van Goghs and other valuable pieces and set them up as a for-profit tourist attraction.    

That might be expected if someone with world-class riches on canvass died without a will.  Barnes, however, sought out the best attorneys he could find to include in his will the specific wishes that his collection never be moved, sold or loaned out.

Every city has its unique disputes.  So why should movie-goers concern themselves with a battle of wills literally and figuratively that played out (and continues) out of our region?

"The Art of the Steal" is superbly structured, for one thing.  Argott ("Rock School") pulls off an impressing list of interviews, although some key figures declined comment.   From former Barnes students, to outspoken art critics and politicians (including Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell), the clearly identified players state their views about what one of them calls "the greatest theft of art since the second world war."

If you appreciate good documentaries and especially if you love art, "The Art of the Steal" is a must-see.


The other major 'save the Earth' documentary

A lot of us are going increasingly "green" these days.

In the name of saving the environment and -- among the more cynical of us, trading corporate printing expenses for our own -- we're forgoing paper bank statements and the like for on-line versions.

Have you ever wondered where and when all this business about protecting Mother Earth from us humans began?

Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Robert Stone did.  "Earth Days," generously peppered with U.S. presidents vowing to clean up the environment before it's too late, traces the movement back to what Stone refers to as "post-war rustlings in the 1950s."

The impressive array of concerned citizens facing Stone's camera includes Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson), Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, environmentalist Hunter Lovins, Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart and others.

"Earth Days" doesn't feel as, shall we say, lecturery as Davis Guggenheim's global warming doomsday documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" featuring Professor (and former vice president) Al Gore.

This renewed cinematic effort by Stone ("Radio Bikini," "Oswald's Ghosts") to light a fire under all of us to do more to save the only planet we have is just as scholarly, however.  Perhaps more so.  Concerned citizens, many of whom are experts in their respective fields, interest, even fascinate at first.  As the films rolls across the screen, however, a certain tediousness sets in.

Sincere interviewees, some presented too often, tend to morph into talking heads after a while.  The message is no less dire, of course.  It's just that "Earth Days" can't quite stoke the interest as much as "An Inconvenient Truth" managed three years ago.

I'm guessing I won't be the only one sitting in the dark feeling a little guilty about letting my mind wander to mundane matters as "Earth Days" reminds us that "society dropouts" frolicked (sometimes sans clothing) to rage against technology's machine in the 1960s.

Eventually, of course, "Earth Days" gets around to the source of the environmentally friendly first Earth Day of 1970.

There are some things to learn there.  But if this environmentally aware British filmmaker (raised both in Great Britain and the U.S.) has his facts straight, a little matter like saving the world is a dilemma too long-term for most politicians to embrace.

We live in a world of constantly decreasing attention spans, according to many experts in such matters.

What "Earth Days" reminds us of right now, right here is that grave environmental issues are not likely to go away.  At least not until we, or whatever human population is alive at the time, go away with them. 


Michael Jackson's posthumous curtain call

An odd, macabre posthumous curtain call-in-song, "Michael Jackson's This Is It" celebrates M.J. the meticulous, totally in-charge fallen musical genius.

"On Michael's signal, we begin," a voice (presumably that of director/producer Kenny Ortega) says reverently from the mostly dark Staples Center, a massive rehearsal hall for a concert series that would never be.

Except in this surprisingly powerful, dare I say enticing, raw cinematic form.

Some will say the appeal here is akin to slowing down to a traffic-halting crawl on the freeway to get a good look at a motorist whose life ended suddenly and without warning in a very public forum.  The King of Pop died in a similarly bizarre, only slightly more private manner on June 25.

This is not a review of a fallen pop star with issues (to put it mildly).  This is a review of what is basically a concert movie in rehearsal form.  "This Is It" is a documentary only because cameras were rolling during the long rehearsal process that began in April and ended tragically in June.  

Don't expect any revelations about  Jackson's final hours.  There's no crusading reporter firing probing questions at anyone involved. There's no hospital or funeral footage. "This Is It" amounts to a rare, final valentine to one of the world's most heralded pop sensations.

Frankly, no one should expect  anything else in a movie hitting theaters so soon after his death, especially a film "produced with the full support of the Estate of Michael Jackson."

Jackson and his gifted farewell concert collaborators (dancers, musicians, crew) were only eight days away from leaving for London, the site of Jackson's planned concerts, when a long summer afternoon slowly confirmed the shocking news of Jackson's death.

Ortega ("High School Musical 3:  Senior Year"), a filmmaker who understands music and live theater, worked with Jackson for 20 years.  It couldn't have been easy to shift gears from creatively directing Jackson's on-stage swan song to picking up the pieces -- technically and emotionally -- of shattered plans and reshaping them into a posthumous big-screen tribute.

It doesn't matter if you're a Michael Jackson fan (music or otherwise) or not.  "This Is It" is a surprising must-see for anyone who appreciates the tremendous power the marriage of music, film and a dynamic performer out front can stir deep within.

Rousing at times when the first notes of Jackson staples like "Beat It" or "Thriller" rock the house, this is also a movie experience ripe in nuance.   Every breath, every sound, every head bob and, yes, even every crotch grab in the upbeat tunes and soulful ballads like "Human Nature" have the distinctive Michael Jackson spin.

Look closely, though, and you'll see a severely thin, gaunt 50-year-old behind the dark sunglasses trying, in vain more than once, to find his breath alongside his younger principal dancers.

More importantly from this aisle seat, this is a rare first look at Jackson's meticulous creative process.  Frankly, the man's dedication and quiet insistence on doing things his way, or "The way I wrote it," Jackson says, makes for an enlightening, toe-tapping nearly two hours of odd cinema that is constantly revealing and, for the most part, quite brilliant.

So bravo, Mr. Ortega.  You have pulled off the ultimate definition of making lemonade out of lemons.

And your lemonade rocks!  Judging from the raw ingredients, Jackson's first concert in a decade would have been a hell of a show.