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Entries in documentaries (102)

Monday
Jan272014

Sundance: 'Life Itself' Inspires and Entertains

Our Sundance Film Festival coverage continues with Michael Cusumano on "Life Itself".  

Is there any point in pretending I can be impartial in reviewing Steven James’ documentary adaptation of Roger Ebert’s autobiography Life Itself? I, like no doubt a lot of critics, feel Ebert is in no small way responsible for the fact that I write about film. I purchased a copy of his Movie Home Companion around age 13 that I read and reread until it literally fell apart at the seams. In college I wrote him with a question about Memento and he mentioned me at the start of his review (no fooling), which remains one of the cooler things to ever happen to me. At a time when I was badly in need of encouragement he posted a link to my blog on his Facebook page and sent a Biblical torrent of traffic my way. 

So yeah, it would be a challenge not to pass this movie with flying colors simply because I miss the guy dearly and am happy to spend two hours in his company. Luckily Steve James has made a documentary that I can safely say I would recommend regardless of the subject, although for hardcore fans the abundance of new interviews and previously unseen archive material makes the film a must-see. Life Itself is straightforward, funny, well paced and surprisingly moving. 

For long stretches the doc most resembles the final scenes of It’s a Wonderful Life with the movie inviting us to ponder what the film landscape would look like without Ebert's (and Siskel’s) influence. Filmmakers from Errol Morris to Ramin Bahrani to Werner Herzog testify how they would likely not have careers had Ebert not used his considerable influence to help them break through. In the film’s most memorable scene Martin Scorsese recounts how a career tribute from Roger and Gene helped pull him back from the brink of depression so bad he wanted to give up on films. Even the film itself is a gesture of gratitude since the director owes much of his success to the relentless championing Siskel and Ebert gave Hoop Dreams in 1994. 

Not that the film is a glowing hagiography of the man. Some of its most entertaining stretches delve into Ebert’s flaws: his massive ego, his alcoholism, his petulance when he couldn’t get his way with Siskel. Time is given over to those who feel that 'Siskel and Ebert' cheapened film criticism. Then there is the section recounting the bizarre circumstances that somehow led to Roger writing the Russ Meyer camp classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. A.O. Scott's attempt at finding a delicate way to describe the appeal Roger saw in Russ Meyer’s oeuvre brought the house down at my screening.

James was filming right up until the end, and there is footage of Roger in early 2013 right after tumors were found along his spine and doctors gave him months to live. Like all great biopics Life Itself manages to be about something more than the simple recounting of events. It’s about living a life full enough that when the end comes you can face it with some semblance of the dignity and clarity Roger Ebert demonstrates here.

Grade: Probably an objective B/B+, but I can only review it from my own perspective and I had an A- experience.

Friday
Jan242014

Sundance: Putting the T in LGBT Cinema

From the Sundance Film Festival here is Glenn on three great new editions to LGBT cinema.

One of my goals for my first trip to Sundance was to see as much LGBT cinema as possible. This year has proven to be particularly strong in this arena with films like Ira Sachs’ recently acquired Love is Strange and Desiree Akhavan’s ought-to-be acquired Appropriate Behaviour covering the “l”, the "g" and the “b” of that acronym and are soon to be reviewed by Nathaniel. I, however, found myself catching three very strong titles that deal with transgender men and women, which took me especially by surprise. Like Gun Hill Road, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways, Orange is the New Black and, yes, even Dallas Buyers Club, cinema visibility of trans issues are becoming more and more common and, in the case all three films below, feature actual transgender or gender neutral personalities. This, dear readers, is what we call a winner.

Please note that people who identify as gender variant or without gender go by the pronoun “they”.

A Canadian docu-musical, an Australian coming-of-age drama, and a Robert Reford production after the jump.

Click to read more ...

Monday
Jan132014

Oscar's Documentaries: Tales from the Shortlist (Part 3)

Glenn continues his 3 part look at the 15 finalists for Best Documentary. (Here is part one and here's part two icymt). Watch along with us!

Firstly, apologies for the delay in this third instalment. I had problems with my HBO Go, which so it turns out was the only way to catch at least one of these films. 

Cutie and the Boxer
Synopsis: Documenting the lifelong partnership between Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, Japanese artists living in New York as they struggle with selling art pieces to galleries and private collectors, their son, and competitiveness.
Director:
Zachary Heinzerling
Festivals:
Brisbane, Calgary Underground, Full Frame, Houston Cinema Arts, Karlovy Vary, London, Sarasota, Seattle, Stockholm, Sundance, Sydney, Toronto, Tribeca, True/False, Vancouver
Awards:
Emerging Artist Award (Full Frame), Grierson Award – Special Mention (London), Documentary Directing (Sundance), Documentary Audience Award 2nd Place (Tribeca), Outstanding Debut/Outstanding Graphics and Animation/Outstanding Original Score (Cinema Eye)
Box Office:
$170,449 (max. 12 screens), on iTunes and DVD now
Review:
It’s hard not to be won over by the protagonists of Cutie and the Boxer. Naturally, Cutie is the more interesting of the pair given her lifelong position in the shadow of her husband and there are pangs of sadness to be found in the rollcall of gallery figures and artists praising and wanting to look at his work and not her own. Debut director Zachary Heinzerling noticed this and focuses the pair’s climactic exhibit around her and the praise she receives. Heinzerling is a talented man and definitely has a future in documentary filmmaking that is both topically interesting and visually splendid.
Oscar?
A sneaker possibility if voters respond to the personalities of the Shinoharas and the themes of artistic integrity. Otherwise I think its more populist leanings may hurt it when placed alongside such emotionally involving pictures like The Act of Killing and The Crash Reel.

Photographers, journalists, brave kids and tortured families after the jump.

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Dec192013

Oscar's Documentaries: Tales from the Shortlist (Part 2)

Glenn continues his 3 part look at the 15 finalists for Best Documentary. (Here is part one if you missed it). Watch along with us!

Blackfish
Synopsis: How do you solve a problem like SeaWorld? Animal cruelty is exposed at SeaWorld theme parks and others associated with it around the globe. Particularly of interest is that of Tilikum, a 5,400kg orca responsible for multiple deaths including trainer Dawn Brancheau.
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite (City Lax: Un Urban Lacrosse Story)
Festivals: AFI Docs, Athens, Hamburg, Hot Docs, Kosovo, Melbourne, Miami, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, Sitges, Sundance, True/False
Awards: Best Documentary 2nd Place (Boston Film Critics), Best Documentary (Washington DC), Best Feature (Nominee, International Documentary Association)
Box Office: $2.07mil (max. 99 screens), out now on DVD/Blu-ray/VOD
Review: From my review back in July:

Its mission is similar to that of Oscar-winning eco-doc The Cove, and would make a curious companion to Jacques Audiard’s Rust & Bone. All it needed was more “Firework” by Katy Perry, obviously. … The secrecy surrounding [Brancheau’s death] forms the backbone of Cowperthwaite’s engaging documentary; inarguably an important and illuminating one that will hopefully lead to positive action against the torturous conditions that killer whales face in captivity. As a piece of filmmaking it’s traditionally assembled, but the topic and access to disturbing video footage makes for a potent and powerful indictment.

Oscar? Good to go! Animals and animal activism are popular in this branch with nominee Winged Migration and past winners March of the Penguins and the aforementioned The Cove. It’s proven successful in forcing change, plus we already know it has fans in Academy members like Kim Basinger and the folks at Pixar. If nominated I’d be tipping it for the win. They will be very impressed with themselves.

Dancing gangsters, wannabe Olympians and more after the jump...

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Dec122013

Oscar's Documentaries: Tales from the Shortlist (Part 1)

Glenn here with the first of three pieces looking at this year’s 15 finalists for Best Documentary. Watch along with us!

Prior to the announcement of the shortlist, I had seen roughly 30 of the 151 contenders. Hopefully by the end of the week I will have managed to catch up with all 15 of the shortlisted titles, which will be the first time that has ever happened. As Team Experience's apparent resident doc expert, I am determined to do it, although I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that I couldn't catch even more of the longlist. 151 is a lot even for me.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Synopsis: Filmed over the course of 6 months, this documentary tells the incredible story of three young moments of Pussy Riot, a Russian activist punk band out to disrupt the status quo and bring attention to their homeland's injustices by the hand of Vladimir Putin.
Director: Mike Lerner (Oscar nominee, Hell and Back Again) and Maxim Pozdorovkin
Festivals: Bath, Brisbane, Cornwall, Eastend, GAZE LGBT, Melbourne, New Zealand, Seattle, Sheffield, Sundance, Sydney, Vancouver.
Awards: Special Jury Prize (Sundance), Best Documentary (British Independent Film Awards).
Box Office: N/A (qualifying run), available on HBOgo
Review: If TV networks had Christian Bale balls they would air this illuminating documentary on a never-ending loop parallel to the upcoming Winter Olympics in Russia. They don't and they won't - although maybe HBO, who screened it last summer alongside other long-listed titles such as Valentine Road and Gasland 2 - will. The film itself isn't particularly brilliant, but works as a perfect entry point into the story of Pussy Riot. A story, just by the way, that continues to evolve to this day. It's a very standard documentary, simply charting the story of the imprisonment and subsequent farce of a trial of three Pussy Riot members after they stormed a church alter and performed an anti-Putin anthem. I'm glad I watched it, although there are areas that the filmmakers could have expanded like Russia's growing feminist movement and the history of it.
Oscar: The branch could respond to the very timely subjects of not just artistic oppression and censorship, but also Russia's glaringly plummeting human rights record. The branch has gone with an unexpected music doc before - Tupac: Resurrection in 2003 - but even then, the music of Pussy Riot are a, shall we say, acquired taste. And they did just award Searching for Sugarman. A vote for this film would be more a vote for the issue than the film.

Four more contenders after the jump...

Click to read more ...

Thursday
Dec052013

Team FYC: Stories We Tell for Best Editing

In this series our contributors sound off on their favorite fringe contenders. Here's Jose Solis on "Stories We Tell" It's winning Best Documentary critics prizes but let's talk another category.

Sarah Polley’s brilliant Stories We Tell isn’t as much a “documentary” as it is a psychological thriller. As the film begins she teases you suggesting this will be a simple case of “let’s find the truth about my mother” kind of film, only to then pull the rug from under your feet and reveal that she’s not exactly interested in delivering a beautiful conclusion tied up with a pretty ribbon. Delivering more twists and turns than any other film this year, Stories We Tell owes much of its success to its byzantine editing (by Mike Munn), which takes us on what feels like an emotional roller coaster ride.

Earlier this year, I spoke to Polley who explained how and why this structure came to be:

[instead of going for a traditional linear structure] what if we’re revealing information that is from before this story starts and reveal it halfway through this story, so that it gives a whole new meaning to what we’ve seen and for me it felt like it would give the audience a sense that was similar to mine. You know you hit bottom and a trap door opens, then you hit bottom again and another trap door opens and you never really got solid ground under your feet, because the amount that you can learn about something and its context is infinite.”

The fact that she wanted audiences to share her experience the same way she had lived it is admirable and humble, the fact that she pulled it off by reminding us that memory might very well be the essence of cinema is nothing if not brilliant.

Previously on Team FYC

 

Tuesday
Dec032013

Oscar's Docs Down to 15

We will be taking a closer look at each of the 15 contenders for Best Documentary soon, but for now let's look at the films that Oscar's doc branch decided to shortlist from that gargantuan list of 151 contenders. All of the titles are rather high profile with a few left field contenders for fun. I was surprised to not see the likes of A River Changes Course, Let the Fire Burn (the only IDA nominee which didn't make it), At Berkeley, Call me Kuchu, and my personal favourite, The Missing Picture, but this looks like a fairly well representative list of films from what has arguably been one of the strongest years ever for documentaries.

The 15 contenders are:

  • The Act of Killing
  • The Armstrong Lie
  • Blackfish
  • The Crash Reel
  • Cutie and the Boxer
  • Dirty Wars
  • First Cousin: Once Removed
  • God Loves Uganda (Reviewed)
  • Life According to Sam
  • Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Reviewed)
  • Stories We Tell, The Square (Reviewed)
  • Tim's Vermeer
  • Twenty Feet to Stardom
  • Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.

At this stage I'd be expecting The Act of Killing, Blackfish, Dirty Wars, The Square and Twenty Feet to Stardom, although I keep thinking that high-grossing doc will be left off (the Academy already gave an award to a documentary about back-up singers) in favour of something else, but it seems slightly foolish to bet against it. 

For now what are you guys thinking? How many have you seen?

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