42 posts categorized "Documentary"

September 12, 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

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.

Cole Smithey on Patreon

May 11, 2018


Oh  Rick2The coolest comic you’ve [probably] not heard of, Rick Crom is a comic legend among stand-up comics. The Chicago-born stand-up comic of legendary New York City status gets his just deserts in this loving documentary from co-directors Dustin Sussman and Aaron Rosenbloom.

Rick Crom performed in the full run of the hit Broadway show “Urinetown.” His downtown fans include Wanda Sykes, Louis C.K., Hannibal Burris, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, and the list goes on and on. Rick’s musical abilities are no small trifle. He’s a natural behind a set of 88s as he’s comfortable with a guitar in his hands. Rick Crom’s knack for emceeing has gotten him more NYC stage-time than seems humanly possible. He's a composer, teacher, and the kind of no-nonsense human being you'd be proud to introduce to your family at Thanksgiving, Christmas, or your budding-comic kid's birthday party.

Oh  Rick!3

It’s not every day that someone as skilled and natural as Rick Crom (pronounced "chrome") lights up your day, or night, or wee hours of daybreak. Full disclosure, I had Mr. Crom on my podcast series LA GRANDE BOUFFE (THE BIG FEAST) to talk about Mel Brook’s “Young Frankenstein,” and about his experiences in comedy. A finer gentleman I’ve not had the pleasure, and honor, of sharing time. See this inspiring movie; you'll be glad you did. I just wish it was 15 minutes longer. 

Not rated. 78 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

Chicago-born, and NYC stand-up comic legend, Rick Crom (pronounced chrome) joins the Feast to talk about Mel Brooks's YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, and OH, RICK!, a great documentary about him. No craft beer on this episode, just some chewy chat about funny stuff. Bon appetite. 

Rick Crom

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and follow us on SOUNDCLOUD. And tell your friends! 

Young frankenstein

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

April 26, 2018


Devil_and_father_amorthWilliam Friedkin’s audio-enhanced documentary about an actual exorcism is a lukewarm flop. At just 68 minutes long, “The Devil and Father Amorth” is a filmic amuse bouche that leaves behind a sour taste. It’s sad that the director of such amazing films as “The French Connection,” “The Exorcist,” and “Sorcerer” has chosen to leave behind this paltry cinematic footnote.

Friedkin narrates, informing us that there are more than 60 million people in Italy. “500,000 Italians see an exorcist every year.” Somehow I don’t think those figures will do much to encourage tourism there. Introductions are made regarding Christina, a 46 year-old architect with bad skin who suffers from demonic possession, or so her wild fits and bizarre screams seem to evince. More on that bizarre screaming later. Christina’s affliction is so debilitating that it prevents her from working. She has had nine exorcisms, and seems destined for many more. Father Gabriele Amorth is a 90 year-old priest known as the best in the [exorcism] business. And oh what a biz it is. Amorth’s signature exorcist move is to thumb his nose at the Devil, or rather the person he is treating, at the start of each exorcism. That would have been a fun detail for Max Von Sydow’s Father Merrin to have included in his volatile interactions with Linda Blair’s Regan back in 1973 when Friedkin made “The Exorcist.”

Father Amort

The exorcism takes place during the day in a room filled with Christina’s friends and family members. Father Amorth’s tranced subject rocks in nodding agreement as he administers the rights that he reads from a card. A cheap photo of the current Pope hangs loosely on the wall behind Christina as two men hold her in the chair from which she writhes and struggles. And then it happens; Christina screams unintelligibly with a blood-curdling sound that has clearly been amped up in Friedkin’s audio editing. You can clearly tell that Christina’s guttural exhortations have been enhanced because they so effectively block out any other voices in the room, especially Father Amorth’s words whenever she shouts. Friedkin’s cinéma vérité goes out the window. The case for atheism gets stronger.  


Our not-so-sincere filmmaker sets about playing a video of the exorcism for medical experts and other priests, none of whom catch on to the filmic illusion they're viewing. They all want their moment of fame too after all.

It’s clear that William Friedkin wanted to extend the legend of “The Exorcist,” but going to such overreaching, but small-minded lengths results in a pshaw moment. At 82 there’s no telling how many more films William Friedkin has left in him. I only hope he is able to make one that will redeem him from this mistake.

Not rated. 68 mins. (F) (Zero stars — out of five / no halves)    

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

September 04, 2017


Colesmithey.comRegardless of any preconceived ideas viewers will inevitably bring to this insightful look at the trophy hunting industry, you will come away from this well researched film with a more informed understanding of wild animal conservation.

The film opens with creationist hunter Philip Glass indoctrinating his young son in the act of killing deer with a high powered rifle from the safety of a stilted hunting shelter. After the deed is done, the gloating father rushes to take a photo of his son holding the horns of his prey. This necro-fetishism for posing with dead animals repeats over the course of the movie as the audience gets a glimpse into the warped minds of [ostensibly] wealthy [exclusively] white people fixated on filling their homes with taxidermy-preserved renditions of the animals they have killed with roughly the same amount of skill it takes to floss your teeth.

South African animal conservationist John Hume looms large in the film.


With a goal of breeding 200 rhinos a year, Hume has invested $50 million of his now depleted resort fortune to create the world’s biggest rhino breeding farm, with a heard of more than 1,600 rhinos. Hume and his staff regularly remove the horns from their rhinos, a roughly 20-minute process that involves tranquilizing the animal before painlessly cutting the horn with an electric saw. The reasons for removing the horns, which grow back every two years, is twofold. Doing so, removes the threat of poachers killing the animals, and enables Hume to legally sell the highly prized horns to sustain his farm. Nonetheless, poaching of rhinos continues to occur at an alarming rate throughout South Africa where the world’s rhino population primarily exists. The threat of death from disease remains a significant issue for Hume.

Ecologist and author Craig Packer discusses the “shooters,” whose desire to kill without any reality of sport has increased the number of wild animals in Africa exponentially. The film addresses the backlash from the 2015 murder of “Cecil the Lion” by Minnesota dentist Walter palmer. The event set off a public outcry against trophy hunting-supported animal conservation that threatens to all but end the financing that makes it possible for hunting outfitters such as Christo Gomes to provide sanctuary safaris for endangered lions, tigers, giraffes, egoli gnus, and other species.   


Naturally, mankind’s constant encroachment on wildlife regions due to human overpopulation presents an ever-increasing threat to animals of all species. What isn’t addressed in the film is why the rich faux hunters wouldn’t be willing to help finance wild animal preserves without the killing aspect of the equation. Taxidermy animals could be shipped to sponsors for their trophy rooms upon their natural death.    

Co-directed by Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, “Trophy” is an important documentary toward opening up informed discussion about saving our wild animals amid encroaching cataclysmic crises of climate change and population explosion. It’s not a comfortable film, but you will come away much better informed for having watched it.


Not Rated. 108 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

Click Here to Pledge Your Support Through Patreon

April 25, 2016


Though exactly as scattershot as its clumsy personalized title lets on, “My Scientology Movie” succeeds at exposing the nuts and bolts elements of the pseudo religious cult imploding under the weight of its abusive methods of mind control and extortion. You know there’s a glaring problem when you see that a copy of Scientology’s “Sea Organization Religious Commitment” contract requires believers to sign on for a “billion years” in order to save Earth. You almost have to laugh. Cue the sad trombones for the next billion years. It does however raise an inconvenient question about Scientology’s absentee voices regarding climate change. Where do Scientology’s Earth-protecting activists stand ecologically? I smell fodder for another Scientology documentary.

Longtime BBC documentary producer/host Louis Theroux (pronounced ‘through’) is the investigator busy tweezing out all the information he can about Scientology via any legal method available. Theroux is hilariously pokerfaced as this film’s all-too-present narrator. Nick Broomfield has nothing on Louis (pronounced Louie) Theroux when it comes to putting himself front and center in his films. Perhaps it’s a British Unfortunately, Theroux’s less than charismatic persona saturates every frame of “My Scientology Movie.”


His efforts unsurprisingly earn him Scientology’s enmity, as evidenced by an ongoing stream of bizarre harassment he receives throughout the shoot from mealy-mouthed Scientologists who randomly appear throughout the film. Their scare tactics are cartoonishly mafia-level, yet nerves are rattled.

The film opens with Theroux’s tweets requesting participation from Scientologists. Obliquely threatening responses advise him, “don’t go there big man.” The “loonies” are out in force. You get the feeling that Scientology’s protectors have a lot of free time on their hands.

Theroux lived in Los Angeles for more than a year in order to be close to Scientology’s headquarters in Hammet, and closer still to Scientology’s “celebrity center,” during which time he earned the trust of Marty Rathbun, the former Inspector General for the religion. Rathbun was in charge of intimidating possible defectors (a.k.a. “suppressive persons”), and applying well-placed punches whenever he deemed that the situation demanded it. Marty eventually “blew” from the church after a falling out with David Miscavige, the church’s chairman of the board. Miscavige took over control after the death of its science fiction writer leader L. Ron Hubbard. Since then, Miscavige has been known to wear a ridiculous quasi-naval uniform complete with a board of medal ribbons for who-knows-what.

More ridiculous yet is the Sea Org motto, “Revenimus” (“We come back”). You just can’t make this stuff up.

Miscavage actor

The filmmaker posts casting notices for a film about Scientology, then goes on to use audition clips and recreated Scientology training sessions to show how easily people can be transformed. Rathbun oversees the sessions and even interacts as he once did with members in order to turn them into docile tools of Scientology. Exercises such as the “bull-bait drill” leave a lasting impression on all parties involved. It‘s probable that the Church of Scientology planted at least one of the actors auditioning for Theroux’s film. The filmmakers do indeed cast reasonable facsimiles of David Miscavige and Tom Cruise.

Scientology loves jargon; it even has a rea-made term for Theroux’s idea of recreating church practices; they call it “squirreling.” The film states that there are about 25,000 Scientologist members in the U.S. The future does not look bright for the Church of Scientology, but documentaries like this one will leave audiences picking over its bones long after it is dead and gone.


Not Rated. 93 mins. (B-) (Three Stars out of Five / no halves) 

A small request: Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


April 04, 2016



Brainwashing-of-My-DadJen Senko’s workmanlike (Kickstarter-funded) documentary examines American media’s propaganda-led phenomenon of extreme rightwing bigotry with a fine-tooth comb. The right’s “media phenomenon” of sophisticated public think tank-invented propaganda has accomplished its goals on a lot of citizens, even if however not as many as its primary architect Roger Ailes intends.

Senko does her homework. Interviews with such key figures as Noam Chomsky, David Brock (Media Matters), former Fox News commentator Jeff Cohens, and authors Gabriel Sherman and Claire Conner provide a wealth of background information and context. This is a solid political documentary with style and grace to spare.

Senko’s filmic journey comes from personal experience. Jen’s once Kennedy-loving father used to be the kind of guy who would address a homeless person as “sir.” Long hours spent listening to Rush Limbaugh while commuting alone in his car turned the old man into a hate mongering “ditto-head,” furious about such non-threats as “feminazis.” Frank’s discovery of Fox News amped him up further into a proper monster who treated even his own family members like dirt. Frank spent his time reading and forwarding dozens of rightwing emails to his friends and family members daily.

The Kickstarter element is significant to “The Brainwashing of My Dad” because the fund-raising format caused dozens of people to reach out to Senko with their own stories about people close to them “becoming enraged and unreachable after obsessively listening to, or watching, rightwing media.” Through interview clips with some of these victims we get a sense of the enormous toll that right’s 24/7 media propaganda campaign has taken on millions of families in America.


A canny clip from a Hilary Clinton “Today Show” television interview from 1993 captures the career politician speaking from the gut when Clinton says, “The great story here for anybody willing to find it, write about it, and explain it, is this vast rightwing conspiracy.” She is (no doubt) referring in part at least to the rightwing media cabal that monopolized American print, television, and radio media in the years after Reagan became President. Conservative think tanks play a role in what gets taught in universities and which professors get hired. Senko uses captivating visual techniques, such as animation (courtesy of Bill Plympton) to help her audience process a deceptively large amount of information on hand.

Keep in mind that Clarence Thomas likes to brag that he tries to listen to Rush Limbaugh three-hours a day. If you’re wondering where so many Trump-voters came from, here’s your answer.


Not Rated. 90 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves) 

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


February 20, 2016


MARLONThough encumbered by a bland title, Stevan Riley’s profoundly intimate first-person telling of Marlon Brando’s life is indispensable. The key to this brilliant documentary’s success derives from its nearly exclusive use of personal audio interview recordings of conversations with a man widely considered to be one of the greatest actors who ever lived. A from-the-horse’s-mouth conceit delivers a pristine explanation of Brando’s articulate intellect, heart, and alternately blessed and tragic existence. Brando is nothing if not eloquent, candid, and revealing. He’s also lecherous to a fault. You’ve not seen flirting until you see what transpires between Brando and his female interviewers. Neither Sinatra nor Elvis had Brando’s hot-burn charisma. There would be no Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro if not for Marlon Brando.

Listening to his strangely melodious voice has a calming effect. Here is a craftsman on a constant search for beauty and some amount of human justice.  

Thoughtful use of clips from many of Brando’s films gives proof to the actor’s embrace of Stella Adler’s Stanislavsky-inspired method approach to acting. Rare clips of Stella Adler discussing the craft and its application takes on a personal dimension when it’s revealed that Adler opened her home to Brando in preparation for launching his career.

Brando discusses studying people’s personalities from a cigar shop on 42nd Street and Broadway, imagining the secrets they struggle to hide. He describes his inferiority complex, a symptom of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his cruel alcoholic father. He calls himself a sensitive person. Brando’s meticulous approach to acting explodes with curiosity about exotic cultures, such as in Tahiti where he found paradise.

The movie has a wealth of visually interesting aspects, such as a computer-generated depiction of Brando, for which he modeled his voice and face. The weird sequences of computer-Brando talking add to the film’s haunting effect.


The filmmakers frame the carefully edited biographical narrative against the moment when Marlon’s son Christian shot and killed his half-sister Cheyenne’s boyfriend (Dag Drollet) while staying with their mother and father at his Beverly Hills estate. When reporters question him after his son is sentenced to 10-years in prison, Brando is too emotionally broken up to talk. For all of the power and charisma that Marlon Brando’s name encouraged, he is consistently as down to earth a [sounding] person as you could ever hope to meet.

“Listen to me Marlon” gives you the sense of casually hanging out with Marlon Brando over a period of years as he describes his complicated life and career. It is an unforgettable experience.


Not Rated. 103 mins. (A+) (Five Stars out of five / no halves)

Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.


Featured Video

SMART NEW MEDIA® Custom Videos



Throwback Thursday

Podcast Series