20 posts categorized "documentary"


'Hair' grows on you, but lingers too long

Comedian Chris Rock picked the right guy to narrate and make cutting remarks throughout the documentary "Good Hair."

That would be Chris Rock.

It'll come as no surprise that "Good Hair" is a comic-documentary.  What else could it be with rapid-fire comedian Rock out front?

Frankly, I was startled, however, at just how much I learned about the culture of maintaining, straightening and enhancing African-American hair and the sacrifices some women (and girls as young as 3) go for "good hair."

Rock, accenting that lilting speech pattern he's famous for, says he was inspired to do this film by one of his young daughters.  When she was only 5, she asked him, "Daddy, how come I don't have good hair?"

"Hair is a woman's glory," near-legendary poet/autobiographer Maya Angelou tells beaming interviewer Rock, "unless, of course, it starts growing out from between her toes."

"Good Hair" features spotty rich moments like that.  Unfortunately, there's also too much filler. Even when Rock shocks us (or at least me) with the dangers and burning pain of enduring applications of sodium hydroxide "relaxers" (called "creamy crack"), he doesn't just make the point and move on.

Rock and his film-making team (director Jeff Stilson and two writers from his Emmy Award-winning HBO concert specials) have no problem securing notable celebs to speak candidly about the technique, logic, price and torture of attaining straight African-American hair.

In addition to the aforementioned Dr. Angelou, Rev. Al Sharpton waxes on about the time the late James Brown treated him to his first "relaxing" session before a visit to the White House.  Ice-T (TV's "Law & Order:  Special Victims Unit") is especially open and candid in his remarks.  

To his credit, Rock spends time with common folks; hanging out in a Harlem barber shop to get the male side of the story and joking around with a woman who's putting her $1,000 hair weave on layaway.  Everywhere he goes, however, Rock lingers too long.

That and a running time of around two hours suggests that "Good Hair" could use a trim of its own.  Rock travels to a Hindu temple in India to investigate tonsuring, a ceremony where hair is sacrificed for God but often winds up in trendy Beverly Hills hair salons.  He also untangles the fascinating modern, big business state of hair weaves.

"Good Hair," winner of a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January, cuts loose with a big finish in Atlanta.

Hair stylist "rock stars" (including Freddie J from Dallas) snip and clip for a $20,000 prize.  It's anti-climatic, though, because by the time the documentary makes it to the bombastic stretch run, you might feel -- as I did -- that you've been there long enough to need a haircut yourself.


Moore forecloses on unscrupulous fat cats

It's ironic and sad that the announcement noting unemployment rates have spiked again at a 26-year high of 9.8 percent comes on the day Michael Moore's latest documentary, "Capitalism:  A Love Story," hits movie screens.

For those who note such things, it's also the 20th anniversary of "Roger & Me," Moore's first -- and perhaps finest -- scathing attack on big business-run-amok.

After the subsequent release of the Oscar-winning documentary "Bowling for Columbine" (guns), "Fahrenheit 9/11" ("unjust" wars) and "Sicko" (health care), it won't surprise most movie-goers that Moore declares his second word war on what he calls "the disastrous impact of corporate dominance on the everyday lives of Americans."

"Capitalism:  A Love Story" is alternately difficult to watch and gut-wrenchingly, darkly funny/sad.  Victims of foreclosure and the greed-driven actions of Wall Street and political fat cats (the rich that feed off the not-so-well-off masses) provide the tears and fears this time.  Moore, employing his usual modus operandi of outrage and humor,  pulls out all the stops to parody what he believes are society's ills.

With modern voices dubbed over an old religious film, Jesus listens to the plea of a deformed man who says he's been suffering for years:

"I can't help you," the actor playing Jesus replies with Moore's dubbed words.  "You have a pre-existing condition.  You must pay out-of-pocket."

After two decades of stepping on toes for the little man, Moore has gotten very good at what he does.  My stomach actually got a little uneasy a couple times watching Moore bring into the light what appears to be blue chip corporations buying life insurance policies on their own employees and, according to his take or the practice, hoping those employees die young for a big payoff to the corporation.

"Capitalism:  A Love Story" is Moore's slickest documentary to date.  It's also a plea for help.  Moore is obviously growing weary of riding into big government and political windmills alone.

In addition to being his most powerful documentary since "Bowling for Columbine" in 2002, "Capitalism:  A Love Story" is a plea for supporters to actively take up the fight right along with the crusading filmmaker.

In extremely recessed (or depressed, depending on whether you've lost your job) times like these, Moore might just enlist legions of takers with this one.


A horse of a different healer

"And then, it all fell apart."

"The Horse Boy," a heartfelt, honest documentary, is about how a Central Texas family and a horse named Betsy put it all back together.

Narrated and produced by Rupert Isaacson, "The Horse Boy" travels half way around the world on a last-ditch effort to soothe the savage soul of Rowan, a young boy suffering from autism.

Anyone who has first-hand encounters or even a brush with autism will be rewarded for investing the time to see how Isaacson, a journalist and former horse trainer, and his wife Kristin Neff, a psychology professor, fought to calm their son's tantrums.  

Not everyone dealing with someone diagnosed with autism will be able to cart that person to Mongolia for hand's on shaman healing, of course.  The beauty of "The Horse Boy" is the loving -- and sometimes tough loving -- nature this Elgin, TX (just east of Austin) couple brings to a problem that threatens their family.

I also like the way director/cinematographer Michel Orion Scott presents his footage.  The audience isn't merely a fly on the wall eavesdropping on the long journey.  It's as if we're a member of the family along on the trip.  We feel the pain right along with all the key players.

And we share the hope when little Rowan, who's cute as a button, by the way, wanders next door and happens upon a fateful meeting with a gentle mare named Betsy.  Betsy might just open a door no therapist could.

A six-string icon meet and greet

It does get loud.  Make no mistake about that.

What "It Might Get Loud" does best, however, is get proud -- proud of guitar fascination -- and get access.

Somehow, producer/director Davis Guggenheim convinces three of the world's most proficient and talented guitar players to converge in one room to talk about how the guitar changed their lives, to play in front of each other and to share with the film world what drives them as musicians.

If Guggenheim's constantly fascinating documentary focused on just one of the trio composed of The Edge (U2), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) or Jack White (The White Stripes), it would probably be enough to hold our attention,

With all three, however, we're privy to electricity in the air when they meet for the first time on a Hollywood sound stage.  Guggenheim wanted to keep everything fresh, so he had each legendary guitar man led to the meeting point from different entrances.

What transpires there is magic.  White predicts a fist fight beforehand.  What happens instead is three guitar virtuosos feeling each other out a bit, then opening up about particular songs and their careers.

Guggenheim, director and executive-producer of the Oscar-winning global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" in 2007, hits more sweet cinematic notes by filming each of the three principals separately in their homes.

I don't quite understand White's need to bring along a boy playing a child version of himself (nor does Guggenheim, according to what he told me).  The Edge reveals much of his technique, though.

I'm not wildly crazy about guitars or those who make ugly faces playing them as some people are.  But when the music Page is  playing on the stereo moves the Led Zeppelin guitarist to play air guitar in his London home, this documentary gets more than loud.

It gets memorable.



The catastrophic flip side of the 'Flipper' craze

Don't blame "Flipper" for the dolphin genocide that bloodies Japanese waters in "The Cove," a call-to-action documentary.

Actually, the five seemingly ever-smiling dolphins who took turns playing Lassie-with-flippers in the mid-'60s were victims themselves.

Former "Flipper" dolphin trainer Ric O'Barry, who says "Flipper" dolphin Kathy committed suicide in his arms, became an advocate to free all dolphins in captivity decades ago.  Along with first-time director Louie Psihoyos, a photographer and co-founder of the Oceanic Preservation Society, O'Barry leads the charge to blow the lid off a heavily guarded, secret dolphin slaughtering operation.

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore pegged this type of activity, albeit on a minuscule scale, in his 1989 documentary "Roger & Me."  A lady was selling rabbits with a sign that read "Rabbits:  Pets or meat."

Before the slaughter/fishermen of Taiji, Japan brutally take the lives of thousands of dolphins who have been driven by sound into the scenic appearing killer cove, the cream of the crop are plucked from the waters.  They sell for $150,000 apiece to marine mammal entertainment centers around the world.

"The Cove," which spills more blood by far than most horror films, plays like a spy thriller much of the time.  Cameras are hidden in fake rocks developed by Hollywood prop masters.  Elaborate plans are made for the two-part mission.

Winner of an audience award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "The Cove" is driven by the impassioned covert operation aimed at exposing the atrocities.  O'Barry and Psihoyos round up an "Ocean's Eleven" like crew of underwater sound and camera experts, including world-class free divers Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack. 
The mission, of course, is to get beyond the shouting guardians of the savagery -- including a shouting fisherman the documentary crew nicknames "Private Space" because that's what he continually yells at them -- find a way around the "Keep Out" signs and razor wire and document the slaughter of thousands of dolphins.

"The Cove" both suffers and benefits from the fact that Psihoyos is passionate about the noble cause.  Also, he's a feature film first-timer.   "The Cove" would benefit from a little trimming in areas of world conferences on Japan's mission to justify and control its dolphin and whale killing actions.

It's also entertaining enough, however, to keep the audience on mission, as it were.

The good news for the filmmakers is that the appeal for a public outcry against what Japan's doing here is 100 per cent effective.  So much so, in fact, that even if you don't make it to the theater, you might want to check out the Web site at www.savejapandolphins.org.

And just a quick word of enlightenment:  See this emotion-stirring documentary and you'll probably never cheer performing marine mammals in captivity again.

Sorry  SeaWorld.  I know it's your catchphrase, but the sad fact is that "The Cove" is "as real as it gets."


Out of step with the 'Chorus Line'

I'm a little surprised that I came away from "Every Little Step," the documentary about casting the recent Broadway revival of "A Chorus Line," thinking it falls a little short of being "one singular sensation."

Co-directed by seasoned documentary helmers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo ("So Goes the Nation," "The Year of the Yao"), "Every Little Step" gets upstaged somewhat by the very process it's attempting to chronicle.

If you've ever been on a movie set, you know how boring that can be:  Hours spent getting the light and camera just right before a camera even purrs, then the tedious process of movie making itself.

Auditions for a Broadway musical, especially one where 3,000 hopefuls show up with dance shoes in a bag and the tune "I Hope I Get It" ("God, I hope I get it.  I hope I get it.") on their lips, appears to be even worse.
Combine the two and -- I think you get it -- it makes for challenging subject matter.

Actually, it gets even worse.  "Every Little Step" regals original "Chorus Line" director Michael Bennett as the Broadway choreographer god he was in the early 1970s. 
Bennett gathered some fellow "gypsies" (background musical dancers) for a 12 hour session to spill their guts about what drove them to the chorus lines of Broadway.  He recorded that 1974 revealing gab session on audio tape.

While the outcome is not only fascinating, it's full-fledged worldwide sensation; an international phenomenon spanning four decades and 22 countries. 
Watching a tape recorder reel go 'round and 'round doesn't exactly bring the audience to the edge of their seats, however.

This is a movie that summons bursting emotions (sad and joyous), yet we don't really get to know enough of the key cast candidates.

The biggest misstep, at least from this aisle seat, is that when the selected few finally get to put on the gold outfits and top hats and take the stage after eight months or so of fighting, scratching to get there, "A Chorus Line" just doesn't pop, or explode as powerfully from the screen as it should.

God, they didn't get it.  They didn't get it.


Come and really, really get it

You say tomato, filmmaker Robert Kenner says radically transformed tomato.

If we are what we eat and Kenner's documentary isn't pulling our chicken leg, you will definitely not like some of the grotesque slaughterhouse images you'll see in "Food, Inc."

Pre-slaughter feedlot cattle jammed together and standing in feces up to their ankles is just one of the disturbing images revealed in a riveting documentary that exposes what Kenner calls "the highly mechanized underbelly that's been hidden from the American consumer . . ."

And here's Kenner's most unsettling assertion: ". . . with the consent of our government's regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA."

The project began with a simple, single purpose.  Kenner, who took home a Peabody Award in 2006 for his previous documentary, "Two Days in October," wanted to trace the source of our food.

What he discovered was not hundreds or even scores of different "farmer" food suppliers like the labels in the supermarkets lead us to believe, but a few huge corporations applying what he calls the fast food factory process to the growing of everything from corn to chickens.

Chickens, couped up in dark, dank, crowded chicken houses, are now grown from chick to product in 49 days instead of three months.  And because many consumers prefer breasts, food engineers have enlarged those to the extent that many of the chickens can't even walk.

"Food, Inc." takes us from slaughterhouse to slaughterhouse, exposing in graphic detail how chickens, cows and hogs go from industrial farms to your dining table.

I appreciate the fact that Kenner's approach is never overly cute or gimmicky, as we see in so many documentaries these days.

Like the Al Gore-fronted global warming documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" (2006), "Food, Inc." calmly puts its evidence on the table and includes expert witnesses such as Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," to back it up.

You'll want to stick around for the closing credits as well.  "Food, Inc." serves up suggestions about how you can get involved to help ease the squeeze of what's going on in the food industry and how it affects our environment.

What you don't want to do is plan excessive snacking.

Trust me, this is not that kind of movie.


To thine self be a true pretzel

The question of whether yoga is an exercise of the spirit or the body temple that houses one's spirit is an interesting one.

And, while we're at it, where does yoga come from anyway?  The practice of devotees turning themselves into human pretzels to cleanse the spirit seems like its hundreds or even thousands of years old.

So what's the deal?

Filmmaker Kate Churchill attempts to enlighten us -- and perhaps herself -- in her first feature documentary.

Churchill calls her yoga quest "Enlighten Up!," a title pun-lovers will appreciate.

Unfortunately, that's about where the enlightenment begins to fizzle.

She recruits Nick Rosen, a New York-based self-proclaimed skeptic, to dive into a smorgasbord of yoga for six months to see where it leads. 

Rosen never quite buys the concept.  So as he visits celebrity yogis, true believers and some borderline kooks (like the former wrestler whose Yoga For Regular Guys incorporates T&A along the way), Rosen's resistance becomes a stumbling block for the film itself.

Churchill will probably add self-confidence as a filmmaker as she gains more experience.  This initial outing is lightweight and visually gimmicky, though.  It's almost as if she (or someone) instructed Rosen to strike a tangled pose that incorporates the on-camera styles of both Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me").

The true value of yoga may be found within, as several of the yogis preach.

It's missing within this documentary, however.


Down goes 'Tyson'

By his own admission in James Toback's documentary "Tyson," the former heavyweight champ grew up fat and fearful on the mean streets of Brooklyn, New York.

"It was kill or be killed," Tyson says.

Not many people are going to admit that doing some juvie hard time did them a world of good.  But Mike Tyson will.  He learned to take out his anger/frustration/fear and loathing (and probably more) in the boxing ring as a teen-age prisoner in upstate New York.

"Tyson," a heavyweight, hard-hitting documentary, features not one, but two bloodied Evander Holyfield ears (chomped on by Tyson in a particularly brutal) rematch in 1997).

Toback, an accomplished filmmaker with "When Will I Be Loved," "Two Girls and a Guy" and "Black and White" on his list of credits, tries something daring and unconventional. 
This is a nonfiction roller coaster ride through fame, a gladiator-like mentality and, on all-too-regular occasions, the ride stop off in the  darkness of life's house of horrors.

My first thought was that Toback was letting his subject just sit on his couch and blabber too much in that familiar high-pitched lisp that belies a body sculpted (in Tyson's prime, at least) in right angles.

Listen to what the former champ is saying, though, and the filmmaker is correct in his assessment that Tyson, despite his obvious brutal approach in the ring and out, is also a desperately lonely and complex man. 
And, believe it or not, he also comes across as a deep thinker.

"I had no idea I'd live to be 40-years-old," he admits at one point.  "It's a miracle."

The documentary itself, shot in 2007 long before Tyson's young daughter died in a freak treadmill incident, weighs in at something less than championship status, however.

Toback's attempt to bring Tyson's complex nature to life by using two cameras and overlapping images (and even dialogue at times) distracts more than it registers as creative inspiration.

I'll say this, though.  "Tyson" pulls no punches.

Archival fight footage and Tyson's comments on what was going on in his life and in his head at the time have almost as much bite as the bloody teethmarks in Evander Holyfield's ears.


Heavy metal, heavier heartache

The really good rock 'n' roll documentaries, like Martin Scorsese's "Shine A Light" of last year, showcase the musicians and give the audience a little backstage peek or two. 

Mick Jagger driving Scorsese crazy by not providing a song lineup until just before show time is the kind of "personal" stuff we usually get.

A truly great rock 'n' roll documentary needs to reveal more than just the flash and dash and close-ups of rock stars performing into the glaring spotlights as thousands of hypnotized devotees worship their idols wildly.

"Anvil!  The Story of Anvil" is not just a documentary that digs deeper.  This astonishing, truly magical look at the band fame snubbed isn't merely a documentary like that.
It is THE documentary like that. 
"Anvil" slams your heart hard and asks for nothing, with the possible exception of a couple hours of your time.  

Is it worth it?  "Anvil!" rates above even the phrase "must see."

Director Sacha Gervasi, who left home at 16 in the early '80s to serve as a roadie for the band he adored then and now, has managed the near-impossible.  This is an extremely intimate portrait of rock music's long and winding road that's full of detours, pot holes and tough-as-nails honesty.

If you've never heard of the heavy metal band that formed in a Toronto basement in 1973, that's just the point.  You don't have to love or even like heavy metal music to appreciate what's happening here.
School friends Steve "Lips" Kudlow (guitar) and drummer Robb Reiner started rocking together in Reiner's basement when they were 14.  By all accounts, "Anvil" out-rocked the big boys (Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, The Scorpions) at a sold-out stadium show in 1984.

But as someone says as this very personal tale unfolds of two guys who made a pact back in that neighborhood basement to keep rockin' until they're old, "Sometimes life deals you a tough deck."

Fate forgot one little thing, though:

These heavy metal jokers are wild.