4 posts categorized "cinéma vérité "

May 01, 2018

A POEM IS A NAKED PERSON

A-poem-is-a-naked-personLes Blank’s mind-bending filmic document of music legend Leon Russell is a rare anthropological social study wrapped in the post-Watergate culture of [roughly] 1973 Oklahoma. Not one to distance himself from interacting fully with the people around him, Blank creates a living and breathing document that is at once beautiful, dirty, inspiring, and cynical.

Scantily clad hippie chicks, river people, locals, and members of Leon Russell’s band receive ample screentime between Russell’s energetic concerts, recording sessions, and interviews. Jim Franklin, the artist hired to decorate Russell’s swimming pool, provides sharp social commentary though his surreal painting and in an especially gripping scene involving his pet boa constrictor and a baby chicken.

Leon Russell

Criterion’s 2K digital restoration reveals the magic in Les Blank’s free-form approach to his subject matter. Although the film’s producers (Leon Russell and Denny Cordell) disapproved of Blank’s determinedly cinema vérité movie so much that they refused to release it, “A Poem Is A Naked Person” is a one-of-a kind masterpiece that draws the viewer into its wild musically-influenced ride.

Leon Russell

Not only is Leon Russell’s legacy as one of American music’s most vibrant composers and performers savored here, so too is Les Blank’s intuitive genius as a filmmaker of grit, soul, and heart. This is one artistic historic filmic record that stands. Dig baby, dig. 

Poem is Naked

Not rated. 90 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves) 

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February 26, 2015

THE OVERNIGHTERS

OvernightersOne of the most potent examples of cinéma vérité to arrive in recent years, Jesse Moss’s “The Overnighters” transcends the genre with a multifaceted examination of complex social issues facing the town of Williston, North Dakota. Hydraulic fracking has driven up home prices and rents so much that many locals have been forced out. Other widespread symptoms of the fracking industry’s negative effects on the region’s society seep with a bitterness you can taste in your mouth. Widespread [false] rumors of six-figure salaries for countless hard labor positions attract a steady stream of desperate men from all over the country, many of who are ex-convicts, looking for high paying jobs.

With no place to stay, these roustabout job-seekers are forced to live out of their cars or seek refuge from the region’s harsh weather conditions inside the town’s Concordia Lutheran Church. Under the program title “The Overnighters,” pastor Jay Reinke provides nightly shelter to as many travelers as the church can hold, much to the consternation of his congregation and to the church’s neighbors. Pastor Reinke’s unwavering dedication to upholding the goodwill tenants of the Lutheran doctrine results in frequent clashes with City Hall and the Williston community at large. He goes so far as to share a basement room his family home with men he trusts enough to care for in such a personal way.

The filmmakers follow up on the trajectories of a few of the men who get hired to work in the fracking fields, and a few who do not. Tragedy connects both. In an America swallowed up by a constant barrage of media-expressed falsehoods about economic victories, “The Overnighters” shows the brutal reality on the ground. The film’s eventual revelation of cracks in Pastor Reinke’s character speaks to a deeper brand of embedded personal treachery. Opportunities don’t exist anymore in America; lies are the only thing the country manufactures in the 21st century.

Rated PG-13. 90 mins. (A) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)

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July 12, 2013

The Act of Killing

Act-of-killing-posterUnrepentant Cutthroats:   
Joshua Oppenheimer Leaks Indonesia’s Genocide

At once the most micro and meta combination of cinéma vérité, documentary, and docudrama filmmaking techniques ever assembled, Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” is an earth-shattering cinematic experience.

A challenging movie to throw into any cocktail party discussion, its parameters are deceptively straightforward but also wildly ambitious. It helps to know in advance that Errol Morris and Werner Herzog agreed to executive produce the film based on its remarkable merits.

The 1965 – 1966 genocide of more than half a million accused “communists” [ethnic Chinese, intellectuals, and union organizers] in Indonesia by right-wing paramilitary and freelance death squads — many consisting of self-proclaimed “gangsters” (a.k.a. “free men,” really unemployed racists) — serves as the stepping-off point for Oppenheimer to inspire, enable, and encourage a handful of aging remorseless killers to dramatize their heinous deeds with whatever artistic trappings they choose. A shadowy film-noir set, or a cheesy take on a ‘60s era American war movie, gives the former executioners artistic cinematic opportunities to act out stylized versions their ideal selves when they tortured and killed thousands of men by hand for the fun of it. One sequence finds the killers dressed up as gaudy cowboys seemingly inspired by “Lust in the Dust,” Paul Bartel’s campy western farce. They even have a drag queen in the group who acts as a gunsel to the gang.

The leader of one such gang is Andrew Congo, a grandfather with a skinny frame and thinning grey hair living in the town of Medan in North Sumatra. Congo fancies himself a cross between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. He breaks into a cha cha routine on the patio where he personally killed hundreds of men either by shooting or by strangling with a long sturdy piece of wire fixed to a pole at one end, and with a wood handle at the other.

Joshua Oppenheimer was cornered by Indonesian authorities into reinventing his initial concept for the film after being repeatedly arrested — along with his crew and original group of interview subjects. The filmmaker’s attempt to tell the story of the genocide by interviewing surviving family members and friends was made impossible by Indonesian authorities intent on preventing any such document from ever being created. Oppenheimer craftily turned the repressive atmosphere by working with the oppressors rather than directly with the victims. The result provides a uniquely cinematic mirror that allows the criminals to indict themselves in a way that their accusers never could.

The film’s provocative title echoes throughout the movie in expanding meaning. “Killing” as an “act” takes on a host of different subjective and objective definitions from the personal to the political. Congo and his equally culpable associates retain their gangster bond nearly 40 years after their punishment-free crimes. They gleefully orchestrate and perform peacefully symbolic movements in nature, before a giant waterfall to the strains of “Born Free.” No amount of description can prepare an audience for the sickening levels of surreal irony of witnessing Congo and his men act out staged scenes of the violence they perpetrated against their neighbors, friends, and associates.

A guest appearance by Congo on an Indonesian television talk show — complete with a female teenybopper host — reveals how the public discussion of the genocide is openly discussed and celebrated for achieving its desired effect of silencing any and all dissenters. Fox news has nothing on Indonesian television.

In another clip, an aging gang member gleefully brags about killing his Chinese girlfriend’s father back in the day. Another gangster defends his belief in the atrocities he committed and his willingness to be brought up before a war crimes tribunal at The Hague for the fame it will bring him. “The Act of Killing” is a transforming movie. Every audience will be affected differently, but every single one will be changed by it.

Not Rated. 122 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)



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July 09, 2013

HOOP DREAMS — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Hoop DreamsSteve James’s remarkable example of cinéma vérité tells the problematic journey of high school basketball stars William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American teenagers growing up in Chicago ghettos.

What started out as a half-hour program for PBS turned into six years of filming and over 250 hours of footage, from which this 170-minute film encompasses an in-depth scope at American cultural, political, and social reality. Cinematographer Peter Gilbert and editor Frederick Marx balance every element.

William Gates and Arthur Agee are similar but different. Both young men read at a fourth grade level when local unofficial basketball talent scout Earl Smith recruits them for scholarship placement in St. Joseph’s basketball program. Renowned for its most famous graduate, Detroit Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas, the suburban Westchester, Illinois private school requires Gates and Agee to get up at 5:30 in the morning to commute 90 minutes to and from school everyday for the privilege of studying and playing basketball in the predominantly white suburban school.

Hoop_dreams

William is more confident than Arthur. His grades improve in relation to his performance on the court, while the smaller Arthur struggles with athletics and academics. Arthur is soon unceremoniously dropped by St. Thomas, and sent back to his Chicago public school, Marshall Metro High. St. Josephs holds Arthur’s transcripts hostage in exchange for $1,300 in “back tuition” it would have covered had Arthur lived up to the expectations of coach Gene Pingatore’s celebrated program. Forget that such an explanation regarding tuition was never given to the boy’s underprivileged parents, who are subjected to the humiliation of travelling to St. Josephs to beg for a payment plan that will allow them to pay off the debt so that their son can graduate.

We follow the zigzagging trajectories of friends and family members near Arthur and William. Arthur’s father Bo separates from the family after physically abusing his wife Shelia and pursuing a life of selling drugs. After a stint in jail, Bo rehabilitates himself and comes back into the family fold. But for how long?

William’s and Arthur’s dreams of basketball success are shared by their supportive mothers, but a palpable sense of doubt hangs in the air. William’s apparent advantage over Arthur’s hopes for the future, begin to fade after a ligament tear in his knee sidelines him for an extended period of time. Orthoscopic surgery is required. William works hard to recover from his injury but gets hurt again while participating in a Nike All-American Summer Basketball Camp at Princeton, where NBA scouts and coaches buzz around. Even Spike Lee puts in an appearance to give the camp’s urban youths a reality check about the money aspect of the game.

Hoop Dreams

College scholarship offers pour in for William who, in spite of his injury, gets a four-year scholarship to Marquette. Arthur, meanwhile, is lucky to receive a two-year grant to a junior college, although he was responsible for leading his team to a stellar season.

“Hoop Dreams” provides a candid depiction of America’s oppressive class system and the lives of those living below a subsistence level existence. There is nothing indirect about this superb work of cinéma vérité filmmaking.

Rated PG-13. 170 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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