300 posts categorized "Documentary"

September 11, 2018


Free_soloTerrifying, invigorating, and heart-pounding describe this unforgettable documentary about free climber Alex Honnold and his efforts to climb Yosemite’s daunting 3,200 foot El Capitan Wall.

Co-directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Meru”) delve into Alex’s guarded personality as he prepares for the treacherous climb that will define his life, whether or not he lives or dies attempting it.

We get a sense of the childhood elements that contributed to Alex’s obsession with free climbing even as he enters into a romantic relationship that threatens to derail the strict focus and discipline essential for him to accomplish his goals. Every millimeter of Honnold's mind and body must be diamond-sharp to execute the climb.


Significant is the filmmakers’ willingness to delve into Alex’s meticulous rehearsal process using ropes and the help of master climber Tommy Caldwell to prepare for the solo climb. As Caldwell puts it, “Imagine an Olympic gold medal-level achievement where if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die.”

Placing cameras along various places on Alex’s path up the behemoth mountain allow him to climb without being distracted by buzzing drones or cameramen.

Alex Honnold

With his large dilated brown eyes and wiry frame, Honnold resembles a young Iggy Pop at the height of his powers circa the Bowie-produced “Lust for Life” era. Honnold’s easy charisma masks onion layers of emotional armor that his doting girlfriend Sanni McCandless pokes and prods at to varying levels of guarded verbal responses from our brave protagonist.

El Capitan

Alex Honnold carries the spirit if a samurai warrior with him. Hearing him describe the grips, holds, and complex maneuvers necessary to climb El Capitan’s sheer face, convince the viewer of his amazing climbing abilities that most of humanity hasn’t the first clue about. Here is a man who knows his limitations and how to push them right to the edge of existence.

To watch “Free Solo” is to take a journey into an incredibly dangerous if joyful world of free physical expression. Go on the adventure of a lifetime. The rewards are enormous.

Not rated. 97 mins. (A+) 

Five Stars

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September 01, 2018


Mcqueen_ver2Alexander (Lee) McQueen was a prodigy fashion designer from humble beginnings with a boundless imagination and a fierce determination that skyrocketed him to the top of industry. McQueen became a household name in the 90s, when he worked as chief designer at Givenchy. It is only fitting that co-directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui have crafted a soaring documentary that celebrates McQueen’s visually stunning creations while telling his tragic story. Thoughtful interviews with friends, family, mentors, partners, and associates harmonize with impressive clips from trailblazing fashion shows to leave a permanent mark on the viewer.


The film symptomatically serves as a crash course through the kooky world of haute couture, from the UK to Paris and back again. Here is a lush and haunting documentary that should be received on the big screen to fully appreciate the epic scope of McQueen’s outrageous designs and rebellious approach that revolutionized the fashion industry at a point in time when such a bold attack was necessary if not essential to its future.   


The filmmakers diligently connect McQueen’s dark fixation with death — a skull was the logo for his design house — to his punk inspired methods for provoking the haute couture industry at large. Daring fashion shows introducing collections based on such incendiary subjects as the abuse of women, contrast with McQueen’s gentle nature and genuine sense of humility. His 1995 “Highland Rape” collection comes across like a truckload of social dynamite.

It is rare for one person to embody so much talent, skill, and committed work ethic; Alexander McQueen did it with style, panache, and modesty. His undeniable genius continues to inspire artists of all disciplines, so too will this film. 


Rated R. 151 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves).

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June 13, 2018

If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth a Fuck

If It Ain't StiffLong before Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe became musical elder statesmen, they were at the tip of the Punk spear as part of a dirty little British record company called Stiff Records. The company was run by two scrappy pub-rock-band managers, Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera. In 1976 Stiff released the first Punk single “New Rose” from The Damned. During the following year the company put together a bus tour for five of its acts that didn’t stray too far from their London home.

The resulting documentary of that magical musical episode captures the likes of Wreckless Eric, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Dave Edmunds, Larry Wallis, along with Elvis and Nick honing their musical chops with considerable help from all available band members. Check out Ian Dury keeping perfect time playing drums for Wreckless Eric on “Reconnez Cherie,” or Pete Thomas and Billy Bremner playing dual drumkits on “Watching the Detectives” for an angst-spewing Elvis Costello. Mesmerizing.

Billy & Pete

The sold-out concerts led to the release of a live record “Live Stiffs,” but there’s a big difference in being able to hear or witness such brilliant musical history in the making. This down and dirty doc has been favorably compared to The Rolling Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues,” but trust me this film is better.


For many years “If It Ain’t Stiff, It Ain’t Worth a Fuck” was an incredibly rare find available only on scratchy VHS copies. That it now shows up on Amazon Prime gives it fitting exposure for the masses. Witness a bunch of inspired, talented, and frequently drunk and stoned musicians laying down the jam harder than you knew they did. Elvis Costello might have thought he was better than the company he kept, but he was wrong. And as the record shows, Elvis Costello was also Punk as fuck at the time.

Not rated. 51 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

June 02, 2018


Don't You WishFinally there exists a beautiful top-to-bottom documentary about the incendiary rock ‘n’ roll band that recorded the first Punk single (“New Rose”) in 1976, and went on to keep reinventing themselves five decades over. They’re still at it today. The Damned’s single “Smash It Up” (from their third record “Machine Gun Etiquette”) was so aggressive that it was banned by the BBC. The band’s founding drummer Rat Scabies met guitarist Captain Sensible at a London concert hall where they had jobs cleaning the toilets. Such are the tidbits and details that documentarian Wes Orshoski (“Lemmy” 2010) delivers with loving attention. In-depth interviews with band members present and past (especially the band’s longtime vampire-inspired singer Dave Vanian) give way to great archive footage to tell the story of a band that never got the attention they deserved.

The Damned2

Exhaustive interview clips with the likes of music legends Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols), Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders), Clem Burke (Blondie), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Steve Diggle (The Buzzcocks), Mick Jones (The Clash), and Billy Idol add to this film’s addictive vibe. Whether or not you are a fan of punk music, there is plenty of honesty and energy to inspire you. Perhaps the film could have been better edited, but it hangs together well enough to hold your interest for nearly two hours.

“It’s an attitude and it’s a lifestyle. It’s about not taking any shit from anyone — thinking for yourself, trying to improve your lot in life; that’s punk rock.”

Not rated. 110 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)


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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

May 12, 2018


Always_at_the_carlyle“Always At The Carlyle,” along with Matthew Miele’s recent documentaries (“Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” and “Crazy About Tiffany’s”), confirms the documentarian as a curator of Manhattan taste in a world that is rapidly losing its sense of such enigmatic qualities.

It’s a short walk from the steps of Bergdorf Goodman’s and Tiffany’s to the hallowed Madison Avenue entrance to one of Manhattan’s most lovely Art Deco creations, the 35-story Carlyle Hotel where Princess Diana once slept. Snugged neatly between 76th and 77th Streets, just north of the Met Breuer [BROY-er] Museum, this New York standard bearer is introduced by tight-lipped but polite hotel staff explaining that discretion protecting their guests is their utmost priority.

Alan Cumming

So it is that the rich cultural soil is tilled for Miele to gently pull back the curtain on the Carlyle palatial interiors with the generous help of celebrities such as Wes Anderson, Jeff Goldblum, Jon Hamm, George Clooney, Alan Cumming, Tommy Lee Jones, Sofia Coppola, Anjelica Huston, and Elaine Stritch. There isn’t much guilt to the pleasure of watching smart, beautiful entertainers wax poetic about a place that few plebes will ever even catch a wafting scent of fragrance from, but a pleasure it is nonetheless.  

JFK at the Carlyle

Miele’s only misstep comes when he includes an image of the late Michael Jackson entering the hotel’s rumor-free-perimeters with a gaggle of young children wearing masks on their faces. Creepy doesn’t begin to express the chill that the image sends down your spine. As George Clooney says, “many dastardly things” have taking place in the grand hotel where John F. Kennedy is believed to have carried on his affair with Marilyn Monroe.

Bemelmans Bar

“Always At The Carlyle” gives you a sense of old New York’s glamour and decadence. The movie is as much a history lesson as it is a celebration of a way of doing business that honors human nature above unbridled greed. You might want to break open your piggy bank to sip a cocktail in Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle after seeing the bar’s enticing atmosphere, complete with a 14K-gold-covered ceiling, on the big screen.

Rated PG-13. 92 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

May 01, 2018


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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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 22, 2018


DealtLuke Korem’s Cinema Vérité documentary about “card mechanic” Richard Turner is an exquisitely told story of an incredibly talented man’s journey toward becoming a stronger individual with the support of his loving family.

Turner practices with three to five decks of cards a day for 16 hours every day, as he has done for most of his life. He give performances where he demonstrates card cheat tricks used by dealers to control card games. Mr. Turner can cut a deck of cards precisely in half-stacks of 26 in a less than a second. True wizardry resides in Richard Turner's constantly moving hands that each endlessly manipulate decks of cards.

“Dealt” is a documentary of such deep human beauty that the less you know going in, the more fresh your experience will be when you watch the film. Stop what you're doing and stream this movie with your friends and family. I promise you’ll be affected in a positive way.

This is Luke Korem's second film. His first film ("Lord Montagu" —2013)," comes highly recommended.  


Not Rated. 85 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

January 23, 2018

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library

Ex Libris- The New York Public LibraryFrederick Wiseman’s longing, and overlong, documentary homage to New York City’s great public library system has the power to charm and exhaust its viewer. Endless board meetings bereft of chyrons alerting viewers to the identities of the participants, and seemingly disconnected street scenes, buffer clips from lectures, procedures, and performances inside library walls. The movie comes to life when punk icons Elvis Costello and Patti Smith show up in interview segments. A rap poet’s performance however earns lesser marks for entertainment value. A crying baby’s disapproval should have been a cue.


There are various hat-tips to the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie for his generous financial contributions at the turn of the 20th century that enabled the New York Public Library to open branches in all five boroughs. Wiseman submerses his audience in the library’s daily rituals of community-empowering practices. The result is an intimate if welcome-wearing experience.

Ex libris

At three hours and 17 minutes, “Ex Libris” could easily have lost more than an hour and maintained its vast overview of a public and privately supported library system that provides New York City with an incalculable resource of information. Still, if you’ve got the time to spend, you’ll get a real sense of New York City circa 2015, when the film was made.  

Not rated. 197 mins. (B-) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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January 13, 2018


JaneDocumentarian Brett Morgan (“The Kid Stays In The Picture”) utilizes roughly 100 hours of previously-believed lost footage (taken by Jane Goodall’s husband Hugo van Lawick) of Goodall’s exploits in Africa’s Gombe region to craft a documentary that stalls as much as it reveals. The result is a limited but significant window into Jane Goodall’s bold mission to study and organize the behaviors and habits of chimpanzees in the wild without having any formal education to inform her research or approach to the mysterious subject at hand.

The film tells of Goodall’s early exploits in 1960 Africa after being hand-picked by Kenyan archaeologist Dr. Louis Leakey to study chimpanzees based on a six-month grant. With her weak chin, blonde hair, and eternal curiosity, Goodall fearlessly sets about creating systems for cataloguing the behaviors and experiences of a group of chimpanzees to whom she becomes a de facto family member.


Romance attends her remote jungle when National Geographic photographer Hugo van Lawick falls head-over-heels in love with his subject. Still, the film skips over too many details of the couple’s experiences raising their son Grub in the heart of the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, Africa.

Goodall narrates much of the film. Her calm demeanor belies the danger and discomfort she surely endured on a minute-to-minute basis in the jungle. Missing are answers to many burning questions about such things as Goodall’s mother (who attending the initial expedition with her daughter). Morgan also passes up the opportunity to elucidate Goodall’s methods of collecting data, and the specific information she was collecting.


Philip Glass’s musical score provides a comfortable soundscape for a documentary that plays it too safe, considering the dangerous nature of its environment. “Jane” is nonetheless an informative documentary about a truly revolutionary woman whose work as a primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace, continues to this day.

Rated PG. 90 mins. (B+) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here.

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