Venus and Serena
Watching this engaging sports documentary about two of the most daunting players in women’s tennis won’t necessarily help your ability to tell Venus and Serena Williams apart. It does, however, provide an intimate window into the background, lives, and challenges of two of tennis’s fiercest players.
Though they were born more than a year apart, Venus and Serena proved equally talented players from a young age, under the perceptive tutelage of their womanizing father Richard and supportive mother Oracene. Archival footage of Richard training his well-behaved daughters on courts in Compton, California speaks volumes about the heightened level of sportsmanship the girls achieved at a young age and the family’s determination to rise above their surroundings.
This efficient documentary gains emotional weight from specific sequences of tournament play during 2011. In the face of vocal and symbolic racism — from crowds and tennis officials alike — both women display a tenacity of sprit that is all composed energy and skill. Physical ailments take a toll on both women. Venus battles against an autoimmune disease. Serena suffers from a pulmonary embolism. Seeing the women work through their individual illnesses demonstrates their inner character in personal terms. Talking-head interview segments with such luminaries as John McEnroe, Anna Wintour, and President Bill Clinton provide social context.
“Venus and Serena” keeps a safe distance from its furtive subjects. Audiences hoping for a warts-and-all exposé will be disappointed. However, those hoping to gain insight into the physical and mental struggles that Serena and Venus Williams have gone through will be richly rewarded. It’s one thing to watch Venus or Serena play tennis in competition and wonder about their personalities. It’s gratifying in a different way to see how they express themselves and live their lives. Everything adds up: you start to understand their humanity and their mutual need for one another.
Rated PG-13. 99 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Few documentaries achieve the degree of thoroughness and compulsive kicks of euphoric enjoyment that documentarian Molly Bernstein delivers with an ease comparable to that of her worthy subject, Ricky Jay — magician, actor, writer, and a veritable walking encyclopedia. If you don’t consciously know who Ricky Jay is, don’t worry you’ll recognize him immediately from his many supporting acting roles in films such as “Boogie Nights,” “The Prestige” or ‘The Brothers Bloom.”
However, the role that fits Ricky Jay best is the one he grew up perfecting since the age of four, that of a highly skilled magician. The filmmakers give loving attention in providing incredibly rare archive footage and photos of the magicians who mentored Jay over his long career. Legendary magicians such as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Dai Vernon, and Charlie Miller all figure prominently in Ray’s retelling of his time spent meeting and studying at the feet of his masters. Black-and-white footage of a seven-year-old Ricky Jay performing his act, involving an unlikely pair of small animals, is pretty magical indeed. A plethora of truly mind-blowing tricks follow. Turning a tiny piece of paper into a live moth with his fingertips is one you’ll not soon forget.
Ricky Jay is most comfortable sitting at his practice table with a deck of cards — something he has spent many thousands of hours doing for nearly everyday of his life. His sleight-of-hand artistry is mesmerizing. Like a precious thematic touchstone, the film reliably returns to Ray’s hands as he shuffles and manipulates the cards he uses to blow the minds of audiences with seamless “effects.” Jay talks about misdirection but no matter how closely you study his moves, you can’t catch him.
“Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” has an addictive quality about it. There’s a good chance you’ll want to see it again as soon as it’s over. The film speaks to the elusive craft of magic, and to the staggering dedication of its most ardent practitioners. As a consequence, it also speaks to the nature of many types of physical skills that have been devalued to the point of extinction. A few brief clips of Vaudeville performers executing various acts of remarkable precision demonstrate an undervalued kind of human ingenuity.
The film makes its deepest mark with story told by a BBC reporter for whom Ricky performed a specific effect involving a block of ice. Tears come to her eyes as she reveals the tidal wave of emotion that swept over her in a restaurant where the even took place. They don’t call it “magic” for nothing. This movie has plenty of enchantment to spare. Here is the best documentary of 2013, so far. Don’t miss it.
Not Rated. 88 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Unmade in China
Director Gil Kofman (“The Memory Thief” - 2007) martyrs himself on the altar of China’s modern industrial filmmaking system, which cranks out movies for a typical budget of $300,000 per feature. Armed with the script for a distinctively American psychological thriller entitled “Case Sensitive,” the quirky Kofman — think Woody Allen’s younger cousin — endures non-payment while attempting to make a movie with an all-Chinese crew. Our determined protagonist exhibits the patience of Job while making joking asides about the willful incompetence that surrounds him. Kofman loses his strongest link in Rain, the film’s director of photography, to the sexist practices on the set. Endless script translation/revisions occur as promises go unfulfilled regarding locations, costumes, and every other aspect of production. Examples of Chinese cultural phenomena, such as its tone-deaf bootlegging of gay sexual identity, provide windows into a society that differs drastically from that of the West. Kofman’s distinctly Jewish sense of humor lends the artistic ordeal some buffering perspective by way of his hyper articulate personality. “Unmade in China” is an entertaining, personalized account of a director’s hardships attempting to work in China’s hostile filmmaking climate. A question that hovers over the movie is why either side would ever want to work together in the first place.
Not Rated. 90 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Pablo Croce’s filmic portrait of master fighter Anderson Silva presents an incomparable perspective of a gifted but humble athlete working past the height of his powers. Athlete audiences of all stripes can learn much from this candid documentary that captures the philosophy and mind of a warrior master. Silva’s comfortable home life in Brazil with his wife and children sets the climate of familial support for one of the most capable athletes on the planet. “Like Water” follows middleweight Ultimate Fighter Silva’s preparation and execution of a fight that marks his four-year run as the title-holder in the sport. The film takes its title from an interview with Bruce Lee wherein Lee extrapolates in philosophical terms water’s ability to conform or crash against surfaces. Indeed, Anderson Silva embodies the same aspects of studious and physical diligence that Bruce Lee inhabited. There is only one Anderson Silva. He represents all of the humanity, humility, and courage of a Jackie Robinson. And you can quote me on that.
Not Rated. 76 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Rodney Ascher’s engrossing documentary exposé regarding a multitude of hidden messages and meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s legendary horror movie “The Shining” is significant for a veiled reason of its own. The movie makes abundant use of unlicensed clips from Kubrick’s films by taking advantage of “fair use” provisions outlined in Title 17, Chapter 1, Article 107 of the U.S. Copyright Law, which states that use of such copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.
Ascher’s bold testing of the fair use provisions clears a path for other filmmakers to fearlessly follow. That “Room 237” is an obsessively entertaining examination of intended — or unintended — sub textual minutiae extant in “The Shining” is a testament to Stanley Kubrick’s overflowing genius, and to the infectious curiosity of audiences willing to pick apart every detail of the unforgettable film. Whether or not you come away from “Room 237” subscribing to theories involving Kubrick’s thematic leanings involving American Indians, the Holocaust, or a subtle apologia for his hypothesized involvement in “faking” America’s lunar landing is beside the point. “Room 237” speaks to the rich filmic fabric of “The Shining” that provides innumerable opportunities for identification and extrapolation by audiences looking for clues big and small. “Room 237” is movie so chunky and sweet you can eat it with a spoon. If nothing else, it makes audiences want to revisit "The Shining," a thoroughly unconventional horror film that keeps on giving.
Not Rated. 102 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
A Place at the Table
Co-directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush don’t dig far enough in providing context to the personal stories of starvation they show to exemplify America’s hunger crisis, but the filmmakers still manage to get their point across. The astonishing statistic that 50 million Americans go hungry every day is a touchstone for this hastily crafted documentary. “Food insecure” is the term used to describe starvation in a country so obsessed with bogus security measures and conducting six wars in the name of “freedom” that it has lost sight of its own third world plight. The film’s most devastating example comes from Barbie Izquierdo, a single mother in Philadelphia whose low-wage job puts her two dollars above the limit to make her eligible for food stamps. As a result of malnutrition, her young son suffers from a litany of disabilities. The realization that Izquierdo’s untenable condition is occurring to millions of other America families puts a lump in your throat. “A Place at the Table” may not be the most competently edited documentary, but it does sound a much-needed clarion call for help in a country ruled by corruption and greed.
Rated PG. 84 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey
Whether or not you are a fan of Journey’s music, Ramona S. Diaz’s uplifting documentary about Arnel Pineda’s rise from an impoverished Philippian youth to becoming the lead singer for a hugely successful rock band, will charm you. Discovered by Journey’s guitarist Neal Schon from thousands of YouTube videos, Arnel Pineda has the voice of an angel or a lion — depending on how you perceive his vocal power. Short in stature but overflowing with exuberant youthful energy, Pineda wins over fans and detractors alike. The documentary isn’t the best-edited, but the filmmaker can hardly make a wrong move with the camera-friendly Arnel Pineda as her subject. Candid, funny, and grounded to his relationship with his wife, Pineda comes across a worthy recipeint for all that fame and fortune has to offer. Having already conquered the lure of alcohol and drugs, Pineda's attention to his health allows him to perform with a staggering amount of energy. Even Iggy Pop never had anything on this guy. The filmmaker does manage to ask the correct question of Journey’s manager, who reveals that Arnel is indeed a fully vested member of the five-man band; he receives the same amount of money as his adoring band mates. It’s fascinating to see how a young singer from Manila can transform a classic rock band of aging white guys into a super-band. In the case of Journey especially, Arnel Pineda proves the postulate that, “It’s the singer, not the song.”
Not Rated. 105 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
A warts-and-all observation of the rise and fall of one of New York City’s most controversial Mayors, Neil Barsky’s well-paced documentary fills a necessary gap. Famous for contributing to the now-popular anti-union stance endorsed by nearly every regional politician in the country, Ed Koch is shown as a nebbish “liberal” Congressman who ran an improbably successful Mayoral campaign by standing in front of subway stations asking every passerby the nonsensical rhetorical question, “How am I doing?” Perhaps the film’s best side effect is its archive-footage depiction of New York City before corporations wiped out nearly every dive bar and mom & pop store and corner restaurant that once gave the city its vibrant character.
“Koch” gives equal attention to Ed Koch’s good and bad accomplishments during his 11-year reign as Mayor — 1978 to 1989. Koch’s housing renewal initiatives created jobs and housing opportunities. The blind eye that Koch turned to blacks and gays exposed a racist tendency and an element of self-loathing — it has long been widely speculated that Koch is gay. Certainly every politician is a hypocrite, and none more so than Ed Koch. “Koch” skews toward being a cinematic love-letter to its now-elderly subject before all is said and done. Nevertheless, it leaves plenty of space for the interested viewer to read between the lines.
Not Rated. 100 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
A brief but surprisingly thorough analysis of the Israeli-Palestine war — post the Six-Day War of 1967 — as reported by former agents and leaders of Israel’s secret service Shin Bet, “The Gatekeepers” is an essential resource for understanding how Israel has “ won every battle [against Palestine] but lost the war.” The tragic phenomenon speaks directly to similar bullying military tactics and policies that the U.S. Government has used continually against its perceived or painted enemies. The film’s explicit subtext makes clear how one country’s ruthless treatment of others backfires immediately against its own society.
Documentarian Dror Moreh makes expressive use of military operations footage to visually reinforce the reality of surgical aerial bombings executed by Israel against Palestinian resistance. Archive footage from such momentous occasions as the 2000 Camp David summit are plentiful.
Broken into to chapters with titles such as, “Collateral Damage,” “One Man’s Terrorist is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter,” and “Victory is Seeing You Suffer,” the film unspools with a sense of urgency and historical revelation that is edifying on a multitude of levels. Anyone even vaguely interested in understanding Israel’s legacy of violence should see this well-researched film.
Former Shin Bet bosses give candid answers to Moreh’s detailed questions about specific aspects of the agency’s tactics and missions. These are not your typical talking head interview segments, but rather deeply engaged question-and-answer sessions where the subjects become increasingly forthcoming in their revelations. “The Gatekeepers” is an exceptionally well-crafted documentary that commands repeated viewings to fully absorb the enormous quantity and quality of editorial information it provides about one of the world’s most contentious ongoing political and human dilemmas. See it.
Rated PG-13. 97 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The most important documentary series ever put together marks its eighth milestone with worthwhile results. Director Michael Apted once again returns to chronicle the life-paths of fourteen British people he has interviewed every seven years since beginning the progression under the auspices of Granada Television in 1964. Initially conceived to chart children from opposing socio-economic backgrounds, the series borrows from the Jesuit axiom, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Followers of the “Up” series will not be disappointed by this opportunity to catch up with a group of familiar personalities who have become like family to many audience members.
Apted sticks to his traditional form, referencing flashbacks made up of chronologically composed clips from past films to give insight into his subjects’ maturing qualities at seven-year intervals.
Underclass Sue never graduated from college. She now savors her position as the main administrator in the legal faculty at Queen Mary College University of London. Sue’s enthusiasm for her job speaks volumes.
Since being raised in a children’s home in England, insecure Paul carries on with his doting wife Susan in Australia. The couple work together helping run a retirement village. They’ve taught their children to live without credit cards. The modest couple cherishes their brood of grandchildren with a sense of gentle but delighted kinship.
Misfit Neil has gone from being homeless to serving as a vivacious member of a small town council as a liberal democrat. He obsessives over his writings, which have gone ignored in spite of the fame the “Up” series has brought him.
A longed-for surprise comes in the guise of Peter, a childhood friend of Neil from Liverpool, who refused to continue participating in the documentary series after “28 Up,” due to death threats that he received as a result of criticism he levied against Margaret Thatcher. Proud of the three-piece band — “The Good Intentions” — he plays in with his wife Gabby, Peter now works in the work and pension department of the Civil Service where Gabby also works.
Upper-class Suzy and Nick visit with one another as compatible pals brought together from participating in the series. They finish each other’s sentences. Nick, an Oxford graduate, exudes an ease of manner that belies his privileged background. Suzy’s bearing is less confident.
The current era’s global economic collapse runs a thread through the film. Cabdriver Tony travels between London and Spain with his wife and family. His canny economic insights from “49 Up” make a impression.
No matter at what point viewers come to the “Up” series, the effect is the same. Each consecutive film reveals more onion-layers in the lives of British citizens whose backgrounds, personal experiences, and individual ideas are organically relatable. I can hardly wait for “63 Up.”
Not Rated. 139 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
West of Memphis
Benefitting greatly from the documentary work of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, whose trilogy of “Paradise Lost” series helped free the “West Memphis Three,” documentarian Amy Berg takes up the docu-activist baton to push for justice in a murder mystery that still dogs the state of Arkansas.
Once again, the tragic story of three West Memphis, Arkansas teens (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley) — wrongly convicted of molesting and murdering three young boys in 1993 — is laid out. Nearly 20 years of hindsight provides the filmmaker with clinical precision in parsing out the well-documented facts surrounding a sordid case of grievous police and judicial misconduct. Most significant is newly discovered DNA evidence that points directly to Terry Hobbs, the violence-prone stepfather of one of the victims. A call on a public tip-line reinforces the premise that Terry Hobbs is the man police should have indicted for the crime. There’s no mistaking the judicial goal of “West of Memphis”: Terry Hobbs in its crosshairs.
Berg widens the scope of this complex story to incorporate a wildfire of public support for Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley that became known as “the first crowd-sourced investigation in history.” Celebrates such as Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh appear in surprisingly candid interview segments. Jackson and Walsh used their personal recourses to bring together a team of forensics experts to examine the evidence and bring their findings to the office of the state’s medical witness who testified during the hearings. Rock singer Eddie Vedder articulates his consistent support for the three innocent men.
“West of Memphis” anchors its narrative arc in the satisfying freedom of its subjects via the use of an arcane legal construct known as the Alford plea. Indeed, Damien Echols and his wife Lorri Davis are given a “producers” credit. With “West of Memphis” being released alongside Ken Burns’s similarly themed documentary of injustice “The Central Park Five,” there is heightened scrutiny being applied to America’s judicial system. Along with criticism of "three strikes" laws and mandatory sentencing, such films seem to signal a growing demand for an overhaul of a broken judicial system. “West of Memphis” is part of a sea change in the way that cinema stimulates social change. You might not get any real news in America's popular media —The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, et al. — but documentaries such as this one show the truth can't hide forever.
Rated R. 146 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Waiting for Lightning
Putting a face to the name of gifted skateboarder Danny Way who jumped over the Great Wall of China in 2005, documentarian Jacob Rosenberg gets inside his subject's ambitious personality. As a child the charismatic Way suffered a hardscrabble home life. Way’s response was to decide to become one of the best skateboarders in the world. You don’t have to be a sports fan or care about skateboarding to revel in Way's unfathomable sense of balance and technical skill on a skateboard. Concise interview clips with family members, friends, and peers like Tony Hawk and Laird Hamilton fill out Way’s absorbing journey to performing one of the most mind-bending stunts you could ever imagine. Not many Americans have their names engraved on China’s Great Wall. Daredevil Danny Way certainly deserves the honor. Get stoked.
Rated PG-13. 80 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
The Central Park Five
It’s tempting to think that gross miscarriages of justice are less likely to occur in big cities, where police and judicial oversight are theoretically more prevalent than small insular towns — like Memphis for example. Not so. Witness the sordid handling of the notorious “Central Park Jogger” case. An April 19, 1989 brutal beating and rape of a twentysomething white woman led to the railroading of five teenagers, all members of minority groups, whose convictions were eventually vacated — but only after serving more than 41 combined years in prison.
2012 has been an outstanding year for documentaries. Ken Burns’s reputation as one of our era's finest documentarians informs the film’s airtight veracity. Burns made “The Central Park Five” with his daughter Sarah and her filmmaker husband David McMahon, a frequent contributor to Burns’s films. No effort is spared to expose the misconduct and complicity of New York City police detectives, prosecuting attorneys — you’ll never buy another Linda Fairstein novel — media outlets, political figures, and such racist fringe celebs as Donald Trump. Careers were made; justice be damned.
Burns eschews narration, letting the story speak for itself. Precise editing allows the story to seamlessly unfold. Wide-ranging individual interviews with the five wrongly accused defendants — now in their thirties — reveal likable personalities and the scars of the injustice they endured. News footage and press clippings show how a tidal wave of public hate was pointed at the five accused boys. Former New York City Mayor Koch dubbed the event “the crime of the century.” He should have called it the “railroading of the decade.”
The District Attorney’s case was built on videotaped confessions extracted from the boys — none of whom had ever met — after more than 24 hours of interrogation. Intimidated into giving up their right to consult an attorney, the boys riffed off of information fed to them by the police — creating fiction from fiction. Burns’s inclusion of the boys’ videotaped confessions speaks volumes about the police misconduct as it was performed. Police promised each of the anxious boys they could go home if they told them what they wanted to hear. One clear message from the film is that no arrested person should ever give up his or her right to remain silent, or to have an attorney present during questioning. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate that this type of police misconduct goes on every minute of every day in police precincts all over America.
Clear-eyed commentary from such reliable sources as New York Times reporter Jim Dwyer describes the feeding frenzy atmosphere that painted the five teens as rapists and killers while the real attacker, Matias Reyes, was left free to continue his rampage of attacks across Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The city’s mishandling of the Central Park Jogger case allowed Reyes to attack five other women — one of whom who died— before he was finally arrested on August 5, 1989. Reyes’s eventual confession led to a positive DNA match with evidence found at the crime scene.
The city of New York still has not settled the case to make the wrongfully convicted men whole. Each man is suing the city for $50 million in damages. In Ken Burns’s words, “After 13 years of justice denied – which everyone agrees on — there’s suddenly now justice delayed, which we know is just justice denied.”
Justice, as many wrongly accused Americans can attest, is not what we do here in the trademarked “land of the free.”
Not Rated. 120 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
The great lengths that nature photographer James Balog and his team went through to place 43 time-lapse cameras at 18 glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, and the Rocky Mountains renders absolute proof of global warming a.k.a. climate change.
You can’t help but empathize with the devastating disappointment Balog feels when he comes back to check the cameras after a year has passed, only to discover that the time-lapse function failed on every single camera. Another trip back to the computer drawing board for a better version of the technology they invented solves the issue. A veteran photographer for National Geographic, Balog refuses to let his broken down knees keep him off mountains of ice. The movie is as much a character-study of James Balog as it is about his process and journey to cataloging calving events.
Dubbed the Extreme Ice Survey, Balog’s stated mission is “to show epochal change happening within the time frame of human life, and to provide scientists with a photographic record to understand the mechanics and pace of glacial retreat and how it relates to climate change."
Director Orlowski keeps a sense of wonder in the face of the gloomy cataclysms the worlds’ glaciers are experiencing. When a pair of Balog’s fearless assistants film calving event in Greenland where a 300-foot-high glacier the size of Manhattan breaks off into the ocean, the effect is mesmerizing.
The photography on display is astonishing. Anyone with the smallest amount of curiosity in the condition of our glaciers, will find “Chasing Ice” more than a little informative.
Rated R. 84 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God
Although the film’s editing leaves something to be desired, “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God” achieves its lofty goals as a documentary exposing the Catholic Church’s systematic attack on children — mainly boys — at the hands of an endless stream of church-facilitated pedophile priests.
The film is nothing if not incendiary in its gloves-off approach to its subject, as blown open by a group of four deaf adults who were all abused sexually at St. John’s School for the Deaf — in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — by Father Lawrence Murphy. The predator priest admitted to abusing over a hundred boys when responding to a closed-book investigation.
Using animated sign language to express themselves, the four men — Arthur Budzinski, Terry Kahut, Pat Kuehn and Gary Smith — explicitly retell their individual experiences of being abused by Murphy, and of witnessing him abuse other boys.
Talking-head interviews connect with archival photos and film clips. The filmmaker gets at the global scope of the abuse. Italy, Spain, and Ireland have all experienced repeated scandals regarding pedophile priests. The enormous scale of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of its several centuries’ old problem —rampant sex abuse of children — is outrageous.
You’ve got to hand it to the filmmakers for tackling a hydra of a subject with confidence. The movie drops a bomb in disclosing Vatican City’s statehood attribution as a gift from Mussolini in exchange for the Church’s support of his fascist ideology. You could come away from the movie thinking that the Catholic Church is nothing more than an impermeable mafia of fascist monsters who prey on little boys. I’m not saying you will come away with that appraisal; I’m merely saying you could.
Rated R. 84 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Ross McElwee’s ongoing self-defining documentaries — a series he auspiciously began in 1986 with “Sherman’s March” — finds the reflective filmmaker sizing up his relationship with his 20-year-old son Adrian as it compares to his own younger self at the same age. Adrien indulges in smoking pot, drinking, performing extreme skiing stunts, and multi-tasking in the multi-media universe of cell phones, computers, and cameras. He’s perpetually surly, if not outright mean most of the time.
In response to his son’s insufferable behavior McElwee decides to go on a sojourn to St. Quay-Portrieux in Brittany, where he once cut his teeth as a photographer working for a mercurial wedding photographer named Maurice. McElwee was his son’s age when he discovered romance with a French girl named Maud before being unceremoniously fired by Maurice for some vague offence regarding negatives of some nude photographs Maurice had taken. Maruice’s philosophical lessons regarding art and culture have nonetheless stuck with McElwee like tar on paper.
McElwee’s competent command of the French language is laughably augmented by his ever-present Southern American accent. As he searches the sleepy French town for clues as to the whereabouts of Maurice and Maud, he connects with a sense of inner peace he enjoyed many years before. Sadly, it is a kind of harmony that McElwee’s son will likely never experience himself. Times have changed too much. For all of his father’s careful nurturing, Adrien is a brat.
Ross McElwee’s uncluttered artistic vision comes though in his plainspoken yet authoritative voice. We realize along with McElwee how age is putting its unavoidable stamp on him, and consequently us as his audience. Bittersweet though it may be, “Photographic Memory” reminds us that time is fleeting and all memories fade — even those captured on film.
Not Rated. 87 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
How to Survive a Plague
Certain to become required viewing in a variety of college courses ranging from gay and lesbian studies to political activism to medical classes about pharmaceuticals, David French’s engrossing documentary about the activist group Act-Up’s role in helping to end the AIDS crisis is the stuff of potent cinema. Utilizing a treasure trove of decades worth of archival videotape shot at Act-Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) meetings, protests, and discussions the filmmaker interweaves precisely edited interview segments with key contributors to present a historic filmic document of one of history’s most successful activist movements.
Banefully indifferent right-wing politicians including then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, former Senator Jesse Helms, and Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush are shown in the harshest of light for their hateful attitudes toward the gay community, which resulted in the deaths of many thousands, if not millions, of people. The Catholic Church also takes a hit for its notorious stance against the gay community.
Act-Up spokespeople including Peter Staley, Mark Harrington, Bob Rafsky, and playwright Larry Kramer are shown as articulate and effective in various public forums — including national television programs such as “Crossfire” – to educate, and attract support for their cause to alter the way the Food and Drug Administration tested and delivered medicine to AIDS patients.
The involvement of retired chemist Iris Long Ph.D inspired Act-Up members to become well versed in the vocabulary of process of scientific research in order to bring together the necessary elements that eventually brought the disease under control.
Co-written by David French, T. Woody Richman, and Tyler H. Walk, “How to Survive a Plague” thoroughly examines the history of the AIDS epidemic through the evolution of dedicated members of an activist group capable of adapting to the lessons it learned along the way.
Not Rated. 109 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
While not the most comprehensive documentary biopic about fashion maverick and bon vivant Diana Vreeland, this by-committee look at one of fashion’s most visionary progenitors captures its subject’s energy full-on. A wealth of archival footage and photos are put to handy use in a by-the-book doc that never feels generic in spite of its strict adherence to the talking-head form. Famous as the editor of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue during both magazines’ glory years, Diana Vreeland’s euphoric lust for life and discerning eye for imbuing fashion with its necessary fantasy trimmings via photo-spreads, comes through like a rainbow on a summer day.
Written by Diana Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law Immordino Vreeland, the film is constructed by collaborative directors Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt and Frederic Tcheng. Vreeland’s youth growing up in Paris during the Belle Epoque informs her ballet-like stature that allows her to effortlessly insinuate herself in socialite circles. Put down by her mother for her “ugly duckling” features, Diana uses her impervious force of will to turn her unconventional beauty to her advantage. Indeed, her 46-year marriage to the handsome Reed Vreeland confirmed her self-possessed certitude. The film works best during interview sequences with Diana pouring on her persuasive ideas about glamour like bringing manna from heaven. Although a recreation of George Plimpton’s interviews with Diana Vreeland — with Annette Miller doing the vocal honors — isn’t quite convincing, it adds some nearly comic je ne sais quoi to the proceedings. You can’t help coming away from the movie inspired by Diana Vreeland’s infectious mad genius. Her effusive personality is positively divine.
Rated PG-13. 93 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Step Up to the Plate
Amongst the burgeoning genre of personality infused foodie-porn documentaries — reference “El Bulli: Cooking in Progress” and “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — Paul Lacoste’s dry observation of a generational restaurant baton-pass is too limited in scope to whet appetites. The Bras family’s three-Michelin-star restaurant “Michel Bras” is located in Laguiole, France. There, the family has built a thriving cottage industry that’s more the size of a large factory. The palatial restaurant, complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, is something straight out of a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired design. It sits high atop a hill that overlooks the area’s peaceful Aubrac region with a 360-degree view. The time has come for the restaurant’s patriarch chef Michel to retire, and pass down head chef duties to his pensive son Sebastien.
The film opens with Michel Bras’s hand-laid construction of the most amazing single-plate salad you’ve ever seen. Each sparsely added ingredient elevates the dish and tantalizes the eye and taste buds. The documentary never again reaches such a dynamic height. As Sebastien spends the film’s length brooding over constructing a signature dish that features milk skim as a primary ingredient, the audience is left to ponder just how much of Sebastien’s fretting is for show. He seems too much of a reflective poseur incapable of going up against the likes of an accomplished chef — such as Jonathan Waxman for example. Archive home movies and family photos give a background into the family’s rags-to-riches story, but the filmmaker leaves out glaring aspects such as what ever happened to Sebastien’s barely glimpsed brother.
Arranged over an annual change of seasons, “Step Up to the Plate” lacks the sense of editorial vision contained in “El Bulli: Cooking In Progress.” It also lacks the charisma of personality expressed in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” The audience comes away from the movie none the wiser about the gastronomical gifts of the Bras family, who seem almost “Stepford” in their insular world of private luxury.
Not Rated. 88 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
Nitro Circus The Movie 3D
VIDEO ESSAYS: HOPE SPRINGS, NITRO CIRCUS, THE CAMPAIGN, AND CLASSIC FILM PICK - WEST SIDE STORY
A crew of ambitious daredevils with the “Jackass” ethos, perform unbelievably dangerous stunts on objects such as souped-up Big Wheels. By “dangerous,” I mean jumping between two 400-foot skyscrapers on tricycles. “Sketchy” is a word that comes up a lot in this laugh-riot non-documentary, which shows off the quirky personalities of a batch of adrenaline-junkies who make the “Jackass” guys seem tame by comparison. It’s no revelation that "Nitro Circus" is the first feature film from Johnny Knoxville’s “action sports collective.”
Directors-stuntmen Gregg Godfrey and Jeremy Rawle don’t so much “direct” “Nitro Circus The Movie 3D” as capture the before, during, and after episodes of gleeful excitement and pants-staining fear from stunts that will make audiences groan, shout, and laugh out loud. Fellow stunt specialists each get introductory segments demonstrating their phenomenal athletic abilities and go-for-it attitudes. Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham is a paraplegic who insists he's in “on” his wheelchair, rather than “in” it. These are one-of-a-kind performers.
MTV viewers may remember “Nitro Circus” from its 2009 run as a television program that led to live world tours. The film’s climax, during a Las Vegas performance, doesn’t give much sense of order to the live program. Still, “Nitro Circus The Movie 3D” is an eye-popping celebration of a talented and fearless stunt crew unafraid to put their lives on the line. Taste the adrenaline, babyface.
Rated PG-13. 88 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Alison Klayman’s biopic documentary is deceptive. It’s not so much about what the filmmaker perceives as an iconoclastic artist’s ability and willingness to stand up against a fascist regime. Rather, the film shows the Chinese government’s effectiveness at quelling any and all means of dissent — Ai Weiwei included. By the same token, the film inadvertently revels an uncomfortable corollary to the U.S. government’s harsher means of dealing with dissent in a country where every citizen is photographed more than 200 times a day — everyday.
If you walked into an American government office or police station with a small group of people and pulled out a video camera and started to film, you’d be told not so nicely to put it away. More likely, the camera would be confiscated and you’d roughed up — possibly arrested. When an approximately 50-year-old Ai Weiwei and his assistants videotape proceedings inside a police station in China, more astute viewers may know that no such act would be allowed anywhere in America. China does have a few freedoms over the U.S. after all. Shocking.
The son of politically oppressed activist poet Ai Qing, Ai Weiwei spent his formative years developing as an artist in '80s-era Manhattan. Archival footage of Ai’s time in New York adds perspective to his no-nonsense personality, which found him boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics after helping design its famous “Birdsnest” stadium. China’s ostentatious international public relations effort was in direct economic opposition to the impoverished citizens the stadium displaced. Ai had no compunction about expressing his rabid disapproval of China’s policies to the rest of the world through his Twitter account — with more than 150,000 followers. Tapped phones, constant surveillance, and the demolition of his freshly built art studio complex were the price he paid for his opposition.
Ai Weiwei’s journalistic art instillation naming the more than 5,000 children killed due to shoddy “tofu” construction during the Sichuan earthquake earned him a police assault that required brain surgery. Ai’s Sichuan Earthquake Names Project involved a public instillation on the side of a building in Munich. 9000 backpacks were used to create a giant slogan describing one of the earthquake victims: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.” The giant red, blue, and yellow graphic is impressive to say the least. The filmmaker also uses clips from Ai Weiwei’s own personally produced documentaries “Hua Lian Ba Er” (“Painted Faces”) and “Lao Ma Ti Hua” (“Disturbing the Peace”) to explore the prolific artist’s many works. “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” proves its subject as an indisputably creative artist with a fantastic breadth of vision. Still waters run deep.
Klayman’s fascinating film ends with the once outspoken artist cowed into refusing to make any public comments after spending 80 days detained in an undisclosed location. The Chinese government seemingly coerced a “tax-evasion” confession from Ai, thereby preventing him from carrying on his famous Twitter discussions about his thoughts on China’s ruthless government. Ai Weiwei is sorry now — just as sorry as every American citizen living under a similarly merciless form of militarized government. Judging from Ai Weiwei’s story, China tolerates dissent more than America does.
Rated R. 91 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)