39 posts categorized "Documentary"

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)

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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) 

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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) 

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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.


January 07, 2016


Bossa Nova

Some of the world’s most emotionally seductive music receives a proper soup-to-nuts account of its history, beginning in Copacabana, in the late ‘50s by a close-knit group of university students and local musicians. The music spread to Rio de Janeiro where it thrived in the early ‘60s under the care a very special collection of like-minded musicians with a knack for harmony and rhythm. You may have to watch the movie a few times to keep track of Bossa Nova’s early contributors and inventors, and oh what a pleasure that experience will be.

Made in 2005 by Paulo Thiago, “This is Bossa Nova” (“Coisa Mais Linda: Historias e Casos da Bossa Nova”) is enjoying a much-deserved re-release at the moment. Here is a golden opportunity to explore the distinctly music that took the world by storm at a high point in Brazilian culture.

Bossa Nova means “new trend.” The music’s foundation in feminism, poetry, and socialist ideals comes through in a welcoming exchange of musical ideas that generated such modern standards as “Black Orpheus,” Desafinado,” “One Note Samba,” and “How Insensitive.”

Legendary Bossa Nova innovators Roberto Menescal and Carlos Lyra revisit the oceanside spots where they developed and played their reinterpretation of Samba, which came to be known as bossa nova. The elderly statesmen of the form are a delight to behold as they chat about the people and places that created the music they still love to play.

Interview sequences segue into performances of bossa nova songs outside of the regular American canon. A lovely duet of “Voce d Eu” arrives like a gentle summer breeze of romantic harmony and lovely phrasing.

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Nara Leao’s role as Bossa Nova’s muse finds Roberto Menescal revisiting her beach-facing apartment where Leao’s lovely comportment and singing voice inspired her flock of Copacabana composers and musicians that included Johnny Alf and Vinicius de Moraes.

Personal anecdotes about such Bossa luminaries as Joao Gilberto, Tom Jobim, Baden Powell, Silvinha Telles, and Bene Nunes, find resonance in modern performances of Bossa standards by the likes of Roberto Menescal, Paulo Jobim, and Wanda Sa. There’s as much music as there is discussion. What a treat.


Exceptional archive footage of historic performances by Bossa Nova originators speaks volumes about the mindset of the congenial musicians who pioneered the movement. A 1960 New York City apartment performance of “One Note Samba” between Gerry Mulligan and Tom Jobim (the song’s author) displays an exact example of the complexity of Jobim’s phrasing. An historic televised duet performance, between Frank Sinatra and Jobim, of “Girl From Ipanema” is exquisite.

The filmmakers compensate for set demands, of covering a laundry list of influential bossa nova artists, by frequently letting the music speak for itself. This is an essential music documentary that deserves to be returned to every few years by anyone in love with Bossa. The pure delight of hearing Bossa Nova played on nylon-stringed guitars by veteran masters of the music, is more than sufficient reason to learn about this relatively young music’s vibrant history. If there was ever a music that could stop wars, Bossa Nova is it. You just can’t get enough.


Not Rated. 126 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

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August 29, 2015


Being Evel Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel was a big deal to any kid who grew up in the U.S. during the '70s. Arriving in the midst of America’s post-Watergate malaise of cultural depression, Evel Knievel’s bone-breaking motorcycle stunts provided an appropriately self-punishing form of shared experience for a country looking for escape.

Knievel inspired an entire generation of kids who went from playing with Mattel’s plastic toy version of the motorcycle king and his Harley Davidson bike, to the parent-unapproved act of building ramps to jump over trashcans on banana-seat bicycles. Many bones were broken but, in keeping with the times, no lawsuits were filed. 

Johnny Knoxville (of “Jackass” fame) was one of those kids. As the film’s producer and key interviewee, Knoxville is the admiring narrator of an overdue documentary about a complex man who went from smalltime hustler to millionaire national hero. How he threw it all away provides the movie with a morality tale of Greek tragedy proportions. Knoxville happily introduces us to Knievel’s personal demons, warts and all. Knievel’s colorful past comprises a litany of illegal and outrageous acts.  

Documentarian Daniel Junge (“They Killed Dorothy’s Sister”) draws on a cornucopia of archive footage, including Knievel’s television appearances on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” and innumerable interview clips where Knievel is never less than embarrassingly candid.  

Figures from Knievel’s ex-wife Linda and their kids to sports promoter Shelly Saltman provide streams of lively anecdotes about the daredevil whose crashes were more legendary than some of his successful jumps. If you’ve never seen the slow-motion footage of Evel taking a midair dive on his bike after clearing the fountains at Caesars Palace, look out — it’s ugly. Saltman’s commentary is especially notable because the biography he wrote about Knievel resulted in Evel attacking him with an aluminum baseball bat, an attack that cost the daredevil an extended stint in the pokey.  

“Being Evel” is more than an entertaining story of a womanizer, bully, and alcoholic showman from Butte, Montana who reinvented sports, product licensing, and celebrity culture. It identifies an approach to life that flipped a national switch of public consciousness. Part folk hero and part con man, Evel Knievel filled a vacuum that has come to be occupied by the good and the bad alike. Donald Trump and Tony Hawk couldn’t be more different people, but Evel Knievel influenced them both, along with the fans who admire them. Then there’s the obvious. Johnny Knoxville and his Jackass team reinterpreted Evel Knievel’s stunts in a postmodern way that embraced the crashes, rather than the successes, as life's raison d'être. Cultural identifiers don’t come any bigger, meaner, or influential than Evel (nee Robert Craig) Knievel.   


Not Rated. 99 mins. (B+) (Four 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.


August 26, 2015


I-Touched-All-Your-StuffCo-directors Maira Buehler and Matias Mariani have anti-establishment world traveller, con man, and convicted felon Christopher Kirk narrate his bizarre account of falling in love with an “exotic” woman to whom he only refers as “V.” How the object of Chris’s romantic subplot relates to his current incarceration is the elephant in the room that this ersatz documentary only obliquely answers during the film’s final moments. The movie is one big tease that doesn’t pay off as much as you’d hope, but there’s still much to enjoy through the material’s intrinsic suspense. Chris is, in the end, a gifted storyteller even if he’s an unreliable narrator.

Seated in a Sao Paulo prison, dressed in standard-issue orange garb, the good-humored Kirk leans forward to talk with his gently hands clasped on a small table; a blank chalkboard fills the drab space behind him. An I.T. expert from Flint, Michigan, Chris Kirk comes across like your friend’s nice-but-creepy uncle from the Midwest. He’s fun to talk to for a little while but there’s something not right about him — something a bit menacing.

The nerdish Chris (nicknamed Goose) describes going to Bogota, Columbia to see wild hippos, the last remaining vestige of deceased drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s legacy. The giant creatures are breeding in the waters of the long-abandoned fortress estate. Coincidentally, we’re told, Chris was friends with an air force captain living at the embassy in Bogota who picked him up at the airport in an armored truck. A visit with the “captain” to a local bar introduces Chris to V, an “exotic” (half-Japanese-half-Columbian) economics student with an aversion to cameras. This femme très fatale is a vampire. One of the documentary’s weakest aspects comes from a dearth of images of the film’s most important secondary character. The only images we see of the mystery girl are a “hazy photo of V on the beach,” a shot of her back at a club, and an artist’s abstract portrait.

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Dating V hardly reveals much of her inner character to Chris, but she was evidently great in the sack. V inexplicably always carries two cellphones, but with only one battery to switch between them. V’s odd behavior and stories, related to other men, cause Chris to become suspicious and hack into her computer looking for answers. Chris has secrets of his own, and clandestine motivations as well.

Although plagued with inept editing techniques and an irritating overuse of screenshot imagery and repetitive B-roll footage “I Touched All Your Stuff” is a fascinating character study even if you don’t walk out feeling like you had some epiphany.  

Early in the movie, Chris reads from his own lush writings, “Where does the explorer go when it’s all been explored?” The one thing we’ve learned about Chris Kirk is they he was looking for trouble in all the right places.

I Touched All Your Stuff

Not Rated. 91 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.


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