292 posts categorized "Documentary"

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.


Colesmithey.comJerry Seinfeld caps off his comedian’s masterclass web series (“Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee”) with a beautifully conceived, and executed, performance of the exact jokes he told while climbing his first stairs of stand-up comic success back in the mid ‘70s. Manhattan’s Comic Strip comedy club, located at 1568 2nd avenue between 81st and 82nd streets, provides the original venue where a teenaged Jerry Seinfeld honed his first bits and comic chops.

Many of the jokes are from Jerry’s childhood. He tells about being a kid and admiring adult men’s habit of checking their pockets for objects they clearly don’t possess. We get a glimpse of Jerry’s “Superman” bookends he’s had since his boyhood, exhibited on the back of the piano of the Comic Strip’s tiny stage.

The hilarious stand-up performance switches periodically to docu-styled narrated sequences that take us to locations where Seinfeld built his early reputation as a world-class comedian. We see him sitting in the same department store window at Madison and 57th street where he ate his lunch every day when he was 21, and dreamed of being able to live off a loaf of bread as a professional comedian.

Jerry Before Seinfeld

“Women need a constantly expanding of cotton balls, while men require none.” Funny stuff.  

Jerry takes questions from audience members as he flashes through performing his early jokes with exquisite timing, phrasing, and physical embellishments. His material is so sturdy, clean, and quick that Jerry Seinfeld’s stream-of-thought reveries hit you with a seamless logic of inevitable laughter. A more polished comic performance you will likely never witness. It’s no coincidence that Michael Bonfiglio (“Oprah’s Master Class” television series) is the filmmaker behind this perfect example of stand-up comic entertainment.   


Jerry Seinfeld is currently running victory laps in overdue response to his legendary career as one of history’s most popular comedians. “Jerry Before Seinfeld” (a reference to the “Seinfeld” television show that ran for nine seasons) is a thoroughly enjoyable comic romp with a ton of historic context thrown in for fun. Here is a comic performance that’s from the ages, and for the ages. It doesn’t get any better than this.


TV-14 62 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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Groupthink doesn't live here.

November 02, 2017


Colesmithey.comGriffin Dunne’s elegant documentary about his aunt, celebrated author Joan Didion, presents an intimate portrait of the tragic literary figure but doesn’t always satisfactorily communicate the emotional, thematic, and political takeaways of her writings.

We get that Didion saw through the Central Park Jogger case for the gigantic lie that it was right from the start. Footage of ever tone-deaf political figures Donald Trump and Ed Koch show the idiot side of a coin that should never be turned over from the intellectual rigor that Didion represents for humanity.  

Didion foresaw Dick Cheney and the Bush brigade for the war criminals they would become via a doublespeak of “professional insiders attuned to a pitch beyond the range of normal hearing.” However, the film glosses over Didion’s coverage of the war in El Salvador — revealed in her book-length essay. Yes, El Salvador was the most dangerous place Joan Didion ever hoped to be, but we don’t get the gist of her essay or the opportunity to digest her editorial voice from the horrors she witnessed while there.    

Joan didion

The documentary isn’t as polished as it could be. A lack of chyrons makes identifying interview subjects, such as New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, difficult. What the viewer does get is a sense of Joan Didion, the person, as a fearless and fierce force-of-nature who could walk into a room occupied by hippies in San Francisco where a five-year-old girl was tripping on acid, and amorally view the incident as “pure gold” from a writer’s perspective.

Joan didion

At 82, the waifish Joan Didion expresses herself with dramatic hand gestures that emphasize her thoughts and ideas with indelible articulation. Her poise is flawless. She’s Jackie O, Anna Wintour, and Susan Sontag rolled into one. When President Obama expresses surprise over the fact that Joan Didion had not previously received the National Medal of Arts and National Humanities Medal during the 2013 ceremony, it puts a fine point on how Joan Didion should have received the award before she was so frail. The center has not held, but Joan Didion is still with us as of this writing. Cheers to that.   

Not rated. 94 mins. (B-) (Three stars — out of five / no halves)

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September 20, 2017


ColesmitheyThere is beautiful chemistry between the legendary 88-year-old French New Wave filmmaker Agnes Varda and JR, the youthful French photographer who cares for Varda as a loyal would-be grandson of artistic intentions. JR and Varda share directing credits for this disarmingly sweet and poignant documentary that plays more as a docudrama due to the circumstance of uncertainty regarding Ms. Varda’s health.

The movie is a nuanced sociological study of French culture. Needless to say, the amount of pretense on display is near zero. Think of it as neo-realistic French New Wave ethnographic study in B minor. The personal and artistic elements are articulated to their fullest — a rare cinematic, event to say the least. It doesn't hurt that JR and Agnes Varda are two of the most endearing human beings you'd ever want to spend two hours of your life with. 

The harmonious pair of inspired film-project pals travel to small towns in France in a Mercedes Benz truck decorated to resemble a giant camera. Already we are in a filmic world. The sides of JR’s fancy mode of transportation includes a photo booth where locals are photographed. The truck then prints out black-and-white portraits on gigantic sheets of paper that JR pastes to the sides of buildings to create dramatic personalized statements about the significance of human faces and truth.


Although Varda’s vision is constantly blurry due to an eye condition, she complains about JR’s proclivity for always wearing sunglasses. She wants to see his eyes. But it is clear that JR separates himself as an artist from his subject so that your attention can focus on the art rather than the artist.

Cole smithey

“Faces Places” is a film you discover and revel in the joy of its simplicity, patience, and naturalistic discourse. Like all of Varda’s films, this one is special. It won this year’s L’Oeil d’or at Cannes for good reason. If you only see one film at NYFF55, “Faces Places” is the one to watch.


Not Rated. 89 minutes. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

What to Watch at the 55th New York Film Festival from Cole Smithey on Vimeo.

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August 22, 2017


RumbleThe most surprising aspect of Catherine Bainbridge’s inspired documentary about the contributions of Native Americans to popular music is that the story hasn’t been told until now. It seems fitting that rock guitar groundbreaker Link Wray’s hard-bitten image graces the film’s title and poster.

That Wray’s indelible influence on music and culture arrived from a swampy instrumental number so menacing that “Rumble” (from 1958) was banned from radio play in many regions of the country, speaks to the deep-seeded nature of Indian culture and its ability to affect action. It follows that the intrinsically rebellious “Rumble” incited musicians such as Iggy Pop and Pete Townsend to take up rock music as a way to make their way in the world.


This documentary has its share of surprises as with the ‘30s era jazz singer Mildred Bailey whose influence on crooners such as Tony Bennett comes part and parcel to the rich musical narrative at hand. While the inclusion of Mississippi blues guitarist Charley Patton might present young viewers with a fresh musical history lesson, Jimi Hendrix’s presence as a child of Cherokee descent will seal the deal.


The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Redbone’s Pat Vegas, gifted guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, and Buffy Sainte-Marie are a few of the other essential Native America musicians whose stories get their due in this dynamic and loving documentary. Every course on American music should necessarily include “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World.”

Not Rated. 103 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

July 06, 2017


The B-SideDocumentarian extraordinaire Errol Morris has crafted his sweetest film to date. Morris’s filmic love letter to his longtime friend, photographer Elsa Dorfman, is a deceptively straight-forward telling of Dorfman's progress as a portrait photographer in the early ‘80s. Dorfman’s chosen photographic format, a Polaroid Land 20x24 camera provides a topical conversation piece for the documentary to contextualize a social landscape that includes Beat poets, musicians, and families who sat before Elsa Dorfman in her Cambridge, Massachusetts studio. Poloroid's eventual collapse plays heavily into the narrative. 

Elsa’s [oversized] photos give the film its “B-Side” title; she always took two shots for her clients to choose from. Naturally, many of the rejected images are better than the chosen versions. Part character study and part social expose, “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography” examines the artistic process of a woman whose divinely quirky personality informs her formerly overlooked career. Elsa Dorfman may never have received the accolades she deserved from the art world, but Errol Morris’s delightful documentary does her, and her lush photographs of icons such as Jonathan Richman, Alan Ginsberg, and Jorge Luis Borges, justice.


Rated R. 78 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

March 26, 2017


Always For PleasureLegendary documentarian Les Blank’s roughhewn social study soaks up New Orleans’ vibrant culture of traditions, parades, music, food, and joyful people in 1978. Learn the proper way to eat a crawfish, and dig the festive vibe in a doc that is a little bit history lesson and a lot of fun.    

Les Blank’s intuitive sense of documentary filmmaking is purely organic. His films allow for a natural symbiotic exchange to occur between the viewer and the work at hand. You can feel it happening when “Always For Pleasure” gets into the Second line musicians and partiers at a funeral procession.

Irreverent joy overflows into Blank’s wanton absorption of a melting pot made up of Black, White, European, French, Native American, Caribbean, Spanish, Mexican, Appalachian, and West Indian influences. Outside of society, and yet minted within primal human instincts for shared communal experience, the Second line musicians and their followers give back all that has been taken away from most of America’s citizens. You can guess the rest, with a smile on your face.

Always For Pleasure

Not Rated. 58 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves) 

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February 25, 2017


KEDICeyda Torun’s filmic love letter to the feral cats of Istanbul, and to the community of local residents they inspire, is cinematic ice cream for the soul.

Cat-level roaming photography contrasts with helicopter-views of this beautiful old port city to give audiences a visual sense of how seven feral cats command their territories with agility, charm, and persistence. Generous fishmongers make for prime stalking.

Local shop owners keep a running tab with multiple vets that they frequently visit for the sake of their feline pals. The community’s willingness to care for the cats that share their streets, apartments, and shops, speaks volumes about the culture and people of Istanbul.

The filmmakers make spritely connections between cats such as the charismatic Gamsiz, a black-and-white smooth slinky operator who keeps more than a few humans at his beck and call.

There are even a husband-and-wife couple of cats whose female counterpart keeps her male partner under close watch, lest he be tempted away by the charms of another cat.


The film’s insights come from locals who have a lot to say about their cat companions.

“People who don’t love animals can’t love people either” makes sense on a fundamental level. “Kedi” is an ideal family documentary that captures the beauty of Istanbul from a cat’s eye perspective. And yes, there are plenty of kittens bouncing around in various predicaments for survival in the crevices of Istanbul’s (mostly) welcoming streets.


Not Rated. 80 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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