Category Archives: Documentary
HAVING NOWHERE TO GO FOR the holiday a friend invited me to come celebrate with her and her family. Normally I decline such invites simply because I do not want to be the outsider at a family function. Some families are close-knit to the point where they have a shorthanded way of communicating with each other; sharing inside jokes, memories and/or conversing about family matters. I would feel out of place in this type of situation. Since I knew some of my friend’s relatives I agreed to go to their family dinner. I picked up a box of candy on the way to my friend’s house, so we could go together to her parents. Once we arrived I was warmly greeted by her parents and sister. I found it amusing when I was introduced to the different relatives who were present because I already knew about some of them from the stories my friend shared with me. Let me just say she has some crazy characters in her family and those are her words. In total there were approximately 20 relatives made up of aunts, uncles, cousins and some cousins with children; it was a full house. My friend’s parents had put up folding tables and chairs to accommodate everyone. IT IS ONE THING TO HEAR stories about people; it is another thing to actually sit down with them and share a meal. We had gotten through the appetizers and soup portion of the dinner before a verbal fight broke out between a couple of relatives. An uncle remembered a past incident a certain way and an aunt remembered it a different way. They were bickering back and forth as the main course was coming out to be served. The hostess asked the 2 combatants to settle down which surprisingly they did rather quickly. However, within 5-10 minutes the two were back at it, yelling at each other. Unfortunately, more relatives got involved so there was this crescendo of angry voices trying to out shout each other. I sat quietly as I ate my meal; I was not about to let a good meal go to waste. It was a bit surreal I admit; but on the other hand, I found it interesting to see these relatives swearing and calling each other names. My hope to stay out of the melee was dashed when one of the aunts tried to get me to agree with her point of view. It was then that I became uncomfortable and wanted to leave this family dysfunction. In a way I had the same reaction while watching this film festival winning documentary. WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play), this musical biography traced the life of Whitney Houston. I thought Whitney had an incredible voice, even buying some of her music. But once she started her decline I lost all interest in her. This is just my thing; once a celebrity becomes unprofessional in some way, I have no reason to support them. It doesn’t matter if they are gifted or incredible with what they do; once they cross that line I am done with them. This is where I was with Whitney. Seeing this documentary was eye opening in some respects. The use of past TV and movie clips were entertaining as were some of the interviews. Whether the director was getting honesty out of the interviewees is questionable; but for my needs I thought the director did a beautiful job in telling a story, albeit a tragic one. From watching this biography, I felt every person involved had a hand in Whitney’s extinction. In a way this story was not so different from other sad stories of dead celebrities; the difference here was we were able to see Whitney wanting to dance with someone, but most dancers were not suitable partners.
2 ½ stars
I KNEW MY FRIEND HAD an older brother but there was not a trace of his existence in the house. The parents never talked about their older son; there was not a photograph to be found anywhere and what I assumed was his bedroom was instead an office. My friend did not talk much about his brother; his memories of growing up were mostly of them fighting. For some reason they never got along; but then again, the brother also fought with the parents according to my friend. I never questioned what happened to the brother because it did seem like a sore spot for all of them. The only information I was given was when the brother turned legal age he packed up a bag and moved out of the house. He never gave a forwarding address or phone number; he did not want to have any contact with his parents or younger brother. I felt sad for the family. It did not seem as if the parents were these terrible, violent individuals who beat their kids. On the contrary, I found them to be always warm and loving. It was just weird to have 2 children raised in the same house who had completely opposite reactions to the family dynamics. THERE IS A SCIENTIFIC, CULTURAL AND philosophical debate on what has a stronger influence on human behavior, nurture or nature. Nature would involve genetics and other biological factors, what we are born with; while nurture involves the environment around us, either prenatal or during a lifetime. As long as I can remember I have had a curiosity about the similarities and differences between siblings. My friends who had siblings were a constant source of discovery for me as I became aware of each of their traits. There was one friend who was social and outgoing; his younger brother was a practical jokester who was always getting into trouble. Then there was a family who lived down the street from me who had 4 children. Each child was a replica of the other; they were all smart in school, wore similar dress and shared the same mannerisms. I used to think the parents must have raised them in a controlled environment so that each one would be the same. It never occurred to me that they might have been all wired with similar traits. From seeing this film festival winning documentary, my curiosity has been fired up further because of the brothers’ unbelievable story of what happened to them. BECOMING A FRESHMAN IN COLLEGE was the catalyst for strangers Eddy Galland, David Kellman and Robert Shafran to have the story of their lives re-written in ways they never imagined. Directed by Tim Wardle (One Killer Punch-TV movie, Lifers: Channel 4 Cutting Edge), this movie could have easily been classified as a mystery thriller. The story was so unimaginable I sat in my seat in a state of shock. The fact that things took place happenstance made these three men’s story more incredible. At first, I was slightly put off by the re-enactments, but it quickly waned as the story began to twist and turn into the 2ndstory that was lying beneath. The interviews interspersed into the story accentuated the storytelling factor; I found myself becoming a detective as the boys’ history was being revealed in chunks. There was this whole ethical factor that came up for me that lingered beyond the end of the picture. I have to say this was a stunner of a movie that adds fuel to the debate on whether nurture or nature has a stronger influence on human behavior. It just was troubling for me to be a witness to the events that took place in the lives of these three men.
3 ½ stars
THERE WAS SOMETHING SAFE, NURTURING and comfortable about growing up in an apartment building. I never felt like I was missing out on anything by not living in a single-family home. My earliest memories contain the assortment of wonderful neighbors who lived in our building. Before I could even walk I learned how to crawl down 2 flights of stairs to one neighbor who always welcomed me into their home and gave me cookies. I know, you must be thinking I was trained like Pavlov’s dog for those cookies; but honestly, I was not. When I grew older no one had to teach me to open doors for people carrying in groceries or packages; all of us in the building did it to help each other. We lived on the top floor so I got to use the landing of the wrap around staircase as my personal playroom. The same could be said for our back porch; I was always outside on it either playing or reading a book. In fact, I had a little table and chairs set out on the porch; so, you could say I had my own personal, outdoor deck. FROM ONE NEIGHBOR OF OURS I learned important history lessons about war and concentration camps. She was a survivor who shared her story with me whenever I would ask her a question. Her son was one of the musicians in the building. While he would practice playing his accordion, there was another neighbor who played the drums; add that to my piano lessons and we covered a variety of musical genres. I would love coming home and hear the music playing as I walked up the flights of stairs, accompanied by an assortment of cooking smells that wafted through the hallway at various times. There was never a need to worry about running out of something, like a food ingredient or toilet paper, because everyone in the building was willing to borrow from each other. Something that I feel that was truly valuable for me was learning at an early age how to conduct myself in public. Everyone was polite and friendly which was a wonderful example to show me how to interact with people. It was a time before texting so we each had face to face conversations and I learned how to listen. I cannot say that is an attribute that everyone has in them these days. Living in an apartment building was wonderful training on how to deal with people. Everyone worked at finding amicable solutions to any issues that would arise. We were our own special neighborhood inside of our apartment building. FROM OSCAR WINNING DIRECTOR Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, The Music of Strangers), this film festival winning documentary showed me a neighborhood that had similarities to my childhood home, but I did not know existed. Debuting on television in Pittsburgh 1967, it soon became a national broadcast. I have never seen the show so my enthusiasm about this film may be more than someone who was familiar with Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. What struck me about Fred Rogers was his gentle kindness and progressive thinking. I was amazed at the quiet way he would make a relevant statement about an event taking place in the world. Learning about the history of the show along with the personal information about his actual and television family, it was quite apparent there was a genuine love and affection for each other. Here you have people from all walks of life who worked together in a civil and respectful way. I must tell you if Fred was alive and wanted to run for office, I would vote for him based on having seen this movie; what a wonderful picture about a beautiful human being.
HE WAS AN UNASSUMING GENTLEMAN. Usually dressed in dress slacks, open collared cotton shirt and gym shoes; he usually went unnoticed by the customers. To them they assumed he was someone’s dad or grandfather who was spending the day at the office. Little did they know he owned the whole company and that is why I admired him. There are some people who wear their job/career while others do the work. I know someone who owns a hair salon; they must always have their hair done just right, besides keeping up with a youthful appearance. In other words, plastic surgery is one of their options. I may not agree surgery is necessary but I understand where they are coming from. As far as they are concerned they are the face of their salon. Years ago, I worked for the owner of a company who thought he had to have the best of everything to show how successful his company was doing. I was not buying his logic; he was pompous and greedy. He had a new expensive car every year, ate at the finest restaurants in the city and had his shirts all custom made. As far as I could tell none of it represented his wholesale company. MY EXPERIENCES HAVE SHOWN OWNERS who are not focused on appearances tend to be the hardest working people at the company. They are driven and want their company along with all its employees to be successful. The individuals who put themselves first before their company do not have the passion and more importantly the compassion needed to succeed. I get a kick out of meeting a person who looks nothing like I imagine that person would look like in a job position. There was a woman I was introduced to who was the person who calculated the fuel quantity for passenger jets. She had to decide how much fuel each jet needed based on distances, taking into consideration weather conditions. As she was telling me this I was surprised simply because it entailed such calculations and her persona was one of a free spirited, feet not on the ground individual. To me I could have seen her being an artist or potter, not essentially a mathematician. I was basing this just on her actions around me, by the way. There was a game I used to play years ago at restaurants and such, where we would make up stories about the people we would see; you know, like guessing their job or hobbies. If one of those strangers was Ruth Bader Ginsburg; taken out of context, I would never have guessed she was a supreme court justice let alone a lawyer. THIS FILM FESTIVAL WINNING DOCUMENTARY directed by Julie Cohen (American Veteran, The Sturgeon Queens) and Betsy West (Constantine’s Sword, The Lavender Scare) was a joy to watch. I am not talking from a political standpoint, but simply because I learned things I did not know that were historic. The things Ruth did as a lawyer were extraordinary. I honestly feel every woman at least needs to be aware of Ruth’s accomplishments. As a fitness instructor I was so impressed with her workout regime; we are talking about a woman in her 80s who is doing yoga planks and lifting weights. I am aware this film is somewhat like a love letter to Ruth, but putting that aside, I found the different stories interesting. For being such a soft spoken, diminutive individual; she certainly has an inner strength and strong belief system that people ½ her age have not reached. There are more things I could say about the various scenes in this movie, but I would rather you experience the surprise I did learning about such a vibrant human being.
3 ½ stars
A TRAINED EYE IS NOT necessary to see the beauty in things. Walking down the street of a coastal town your eye catches a glimpse of the ocean between two dilapidated buildings. You came up to the space just as the sun slipped out from behind a cloud, sending a blanket of diamond confetti across the water’s surface. Down by the fisheries where the smell of fish is thick in the air, you see the skeleton of an eaten fish that some animal must have scavenged away from the dock as a fishing boat was unloading their catch. The way the skeleton was left on the ground minus its head, it looks like someone was trying to comb the unruly grass blades. So you see there are opportunities to find something special in the most ordinary of things. I have mentioned before that on vacation I tend to be a drive by shooter; that is, someone who can be driving along and spot something interesting that I want to photograph. If there is no traffic around I will stop the car in the middle of the road, roll down my window and snap a picture then drive away. HAVING GROWN UP IN THE city I am particularly fond of state and national parks. Seeing expansive landscapes, with very little trace of human interference, grounds me to the earth so to speak. The area where I live is flat, so viewing mountain ranges and canyons are exciting for me. You should see me at a park with my camera; I am shooting picture after picture of sights multiple times. I can shoot the same scene a few times but each one I make a subtle change like zooming in or focusing on an object off center. One of my dreams when I retire is to spend time every year visiting a national park until I have seen them all. Based on what I saw in this film festival winning documentary, I hope the parks will still be pristine by the time I can go see them. Maybe I will have to adjust my focus. CANADIAN PHOTOGRAPHER EDWARD BURTYNSKY has spent part of his life visiting different areas of the world where people have made an impact on their surroundings. Someone’s trash could be someone else’s treasure. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal (Long Time Running, Watermark) I found this film an amazing smorgasbord of visual actions; where out of the most mundane and blemished areas things were turned into beautiful art. Being a photographer I wondered if I was biased in my assessment, but if the visuals were standing alone I could possible see it. However with the narration and seeing what society was creating, I felt there was a definite message being broadcast in this story. Not that anything is being drummed into the viewer’s head, but one could certainly see what society’s actions were doing to the planet. On the flip side it was fascinating to see how our actions have an effect on the people who either live nearby or far away. Without giving too much away I have to tell you I was enthralled with the ship scenes. This was a thought provoking, visual treat for me.
3 1/4 stars — DVD
WHEN A TELEVISION PROGRAM shows graphic scenes of blood, violence or medical procedures I have to avert my eyes. If the setting is make believe then I can handle seeing it; but if it is real or depicted accurately I have a hard time viewing it. Because of this I had to stop watching a particular TV series set in a hospital; the patients’ injuries and the doctors operating were all too real. This may sound weird but the sight of blood does not actually disturb me; it is the open wounds or peeling back body tissue to reveal internal organs that gross me out. Seeing the body broken or damaged is more upsetting to me than just looking at a pool of blood on the floor. Unlike me I have a friend who cannot even look at a bloodspot, for it will cause them to have nightmares. Whether it is an open wound or a drop of blood from a finger prick, they will be haunted by it. I AM USED TO people being squeamish about body functions and injuries, but I do not understand those people who actively seek out such scenes. You may have experienced them for they are the ones who purposely slow down at car accidents to catch a glimpse of the destruction and/or injuries. This infuriates me; for the life of me I do not understand why someone wants to stop and stare at such scenes. Please keep in mind I am not referring to the drivers who slow down for safety reasons; I am talking about the ones who are clear to drive, some in the lanes furthest from the accident, but creep along either staring or snapping photos. Who and why would one want to show pictures of such things? I think I have told you in a previous review about a couple I knew who would listen to the news and if possible would try to drive to the location of an accident just to see what happened. Sorry but this makes no sense to me; it wasn’t like they wanted to offer any help. You have no idea how relieved I was that this Oscar nominated and film festival winning documentary came up with a novel way to tell its story. DURING THE YEARS BETWEEN 1975 and 1979 Cambodia suffered at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Writer and director Rithy Panh (The Land of the Wandering Souls, Paper Cannot Wrap Ember) found a way to tell his story. Narrated by Randal Douc (The Sea Wall, Le Chemin) and Jean-Baptiste Phou (White Soldier, FLA), the use and combination of clay figures and archival footage were both creative and brilliant. I realize some viewers may balk at watching a film with clay figures, but I have to tell you it made this story just as real as if they used actual actors. Doing it this way gave the movie a twinge of unearthliness but yet still told what I felt was an accurate story. I do not know if I could have sat all the way through watching the atrocities that were being done. Though this time period took place over 35 years ago I still felt it was relevant. This is just my opinion but it still seems to happen; when one group of people take over with claims of prosperity and growth, it is only meant for them.
3 ½ stars — DVD
HOW MANY REGRETS were the result of placing incorrect bets? If one is gambling at a casino, the person knows there is a chance they will lose their money. Based on the route a person chooses to travel to work that day may be the wrong route because they were delayed due to construction work. So let me say there are bets we all make where we know exactly how much we can lose on them. What about placing a bet where one does not know what they could sacrifice if they made the wrong bet? I watched a TV show about a family that decided to travel out of state in the middle of winter to celebrate a relative’s birthday. The areas they would be driving through typically get a lot of snow during winter. They wound up traveling during a snowstorm and became stuck in a desolate area for several days, with little food and water and freezing temperatures. They almost died in their car after it ran out of gasoline. WHEN I WAS younger I used to take more chances. As I have gotten older I have become more cautious. I prefer knowing, like most of us I am sure, what the risks are before taking a chance. Now I am not here to start a debate on whether you believe or not climate change is taking place. What I will say is I do not recall experiencing the type of weather we have now compared to when I was younger. Recently the area I live in was subjected to a series of heavy rainstorms. A relative posted a picture of the cul-de-sac they live on and I was shocked. Picture 4 houses placed in a semi-circle perched above the cul-de-sac with driveways that sloped down into it. The cul-de-sac was filled with water all the way up each driveway to the bottom of their mailboxes. No one could get out unless they had a boat or raft; it was a surreal scene, especially since they never experienced anything like it before. Something is not right as this sequel to the Oscar winning documentary will show you. THIS FILM FESTIVAL winner is an update to the 2006 winner, An Inconvenient Truth. Directed by Bonni Cohen (The Rape of Europa, Audrie & Daisy) and Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan, The Island President), this documentary follows former Vice President Al Gore as he travels the world discussing the changes he has noticed from a decade ago. It appears as if the directors had easy access to Mr. Gore as they filmed him in a variety of settings, from backstage to town hall meetings to private moments. The movie was not focused entirely on doom and gloom scenarios; it included several positive actions taking place in the world today. My issue with this film was having Al Gore do the majority of speaking. He is not a dynamic speaker in my opinion; as the movie progressed his speech was turning into white noise for me. There is a one dimensional aspect to his talking that I do not find motivating. With that being said, some of the scenes on screen were fascinating to observe; while others seemed a rehash from the time before. The scene in Congress was particularly noteworthy to me because it showed how some people are not willing to listen to a different point of view. And this is what I meant earlier about taking a bet on something where the outcome would not be known until it is too late.
2 ¾ stars
ZOOKEEPERS’ love of animals is stronger than their fear of getting killed. Granted precautions would be in place to avoid being fatally hurt by an animal. I give them credit nonetheless because I feel it takes courage to walk into a space where a wild animal is located. According to a couple of surveys some of the most dangerous jobs would be loggers, fishing workers, construction workers, truckers and farmers. Let us assume the person had a choice in what type of work they wanted to do and were aware of any dangers associated with it. The point I am making is a person chooses what they want to do for either financial reasons or desire to be in that field; they usually do not base their decision on how dangerous and thrilling it would be. Well maybe a stunt double or daredevil would want the excitement. DESPITE the present danger there were and are people who defy the given norm. A person at one time marrying out of their faith or race could find themselves being cast out or killed. Holding hands or kissing someone of the same gender could get you thrown off of a building. The world is a scary place and personally I find it getting scarier than when I was younger. There is however examples all around of people being courageous. I think those who volunteer for experimental drug studies show courage, as an example. With most cases whatever lines of work a person chooses there would be some down time where they can relax and be off the clock so to speak. However what would you say about a person who decides to do something that will affect their life 24/7? You could say they are nuts, why would they want to do such a thing; however, there is something inside such an individual who would willingly take on the risk for a deeper cause. There is courage but after watching this film festival winning documentary I have a new definition for what courage means. WATCHING their city being taken over by ISIS a small group of anonymous activists risk their lives to show the world what is going on in their hometown of Raqqa in Syria. Written and directed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare), watching this movie was not only hard but it was also unimaginable. The idea that these men are willing to take on such risk to show the world what is going on in their city was unbelievable. Seeing the footage they were able to shoot may be too much for some viewers. From a viewing experience this picture was suspenseful, thrilling, emotional and dramatic; I still am in a bit of shock that these activists are now marked for life for undertaking this endeavor. Kudos to the director for bringing together the various aspects to this story for there was the actual footage from the city, the personal stories of the activists and news reports. I will be honest I was hesitant for a moment on whether I should post this review. Based on the lengths being taken to squash these activists’ actions, I was wondering if I was in any kind of danger. It may sound crazy but after you view this film you might understand where I am coming from. This was not an easy movie to sit through but compared to what was on screen I have no right to complain about anything.
3 ½ stars
SACRIFICE may be too strong of a word; I prefer saying compromise. Maybe I feel this way because when I was younger the only time I would be aware of the word and its meaning was in stories and movies. A sacrifice involved killing, either human or animal. Just look at the film King Kong where the villagers make an offering to Kong. So when it comes to relationships I tend to avoid saying sacrifice; though if they made me mad enough—just kidding. For me compromising is an essential part of being in a relationship. There have been several couples I have known where one person was so needy, they were never satisfied with the amount of changes their significant other had gone through to please them. More times than not resentment filters into the relationship and from there everything quickly goes downhill. This of course can turn out completely different when one participant has low self-esteem. FROM a recent relationship I experienced some of this firsthand. We were still in the early stages where everything was great and exciting. A couple of times I was questioned about my teaching schedule; I took it as a sign of interest. After a couple of months we had a talk about finding places in our schedules where we could spend more time together. I offered a couple of options where I could fit in some of my chores during the week to free up more open time on the weekend. This seemed a doable solution so life went on as we became more attached to each other. It was around the 6-7 month mark when I was asked if I could join them for some function. My schedule did not allow it and they seemed to understand. Sure enough a few weeks went by before they started an argument and threw this back at me. It turns out they resented me teaching at night; something I was doing way before we had met. From my point of view they wanted me to make the sacrifice and stop teaching; I think you can guess what happened—I still am teaching classes. ARTISTS Noriko and Ushio Shinohara would have to give up something to make their relationship work, but would it be fair? Written and directed by Zachary Heinzerling (Hugh the Hunter, P.O.V-TV) this film festival winning documentary was nominated for an Oscar. Spanning their 40 year marriage I enjoyed seeing how the creativity came out of these 2 artists along with their artistic son Alex. It was fascinating to see how emotions play such an important role in an artist’s life. Ushio is known as the boxing artist and I could easily see where some of his work was therapeutic. The things he made using cardboard were incredible. However Noriko’s story was the stronger one for me because one could really see the progression she made throughout the years of their marriage. Another aspect I enjoyed about this film was the use of animation with some of Noriko’s artwork. I, like many others I am sure, have heard how artists suffer for their art. Now I do not want to say there was suffering on display here; but it was interesting to see what people do for the sake of their art. Whether one thinks there was sacrifice or compromise in the Shinohara’s relationship does not matter; what does is how it all fits together. Parts of the movie were spoken in Japanese with English subtitles.
3 ¼ stars — DVD
RESTING outside on a sunny day I gaze up at the bulbous clouds drifting by. If I look long enough I can make out images among the folds of the clouds. I get a kick out of seeing what might not initially be seen at first glance. As the wisps of cloud matter slowly swirl about, I can make out what looks like an eagle with outstretched wings. Continuing to stare at the same spot the eagle soon disintegrates and becomes the face of a rabbit with attentive ears. Since I was young I have always looked at things with an eye to reality and one to fantasy. Even when I am stuck in traffic I try to keep myself busy by scanning the landscape around to see if images can appear based on how I focus on the shadows or the bright spots of an area. Once there was a flatbed truck alongside of me that had crushed automobiles stacked up to haul to a scrap yard. With traffic barely moving I was able to find outlines of a variety of different objects like a leopard and a clown. THIS ability, if you will, helps me I believe in my attempts to understand modern art. I am fortunate to live in a city that has a modern art museum and some of its exhibits have been a fascinating experience for me. There was the artist who created large sculptures of ordinary things like monkeys and dogs; however, they looked like they were made out of blown up balloons. You know, like the kind a clown or magician would make at a carnival show. I can appreciate the effort and work that went in to create such a piece. Now there have been some shows where I feel clueless with what is on display. A canvas covered totally in black paint doesn’t move me; I wonder if I should focus on the brushstrokes, the consistency of the color or its relationship to its surroundings. My confusion can supersede my involvement with a work of art or what someone is saying is a work of art. I felt the same towards some of this extraordinary artist’s works in this film festival nominated documentary. PERFORMANCE artist, visionary, crazy, unorthodox are some of the terms one can apply to Chris Burden. Whether you understand his craft or not, you will certainly get a reaction from it. I had never heard of this artist until I watched this film, directed by Richard Dewey (The Leisure Class) and Timothy Marrinan (Invisible Lives). Right from the start there were times where I sat and thought this man has a death wish and then another scene would take place where I was amused with his creation. As the movie continued I found myself more and more intrigued with learning about Chris and his motivations. The raw footage interspersed with his current life provided a well rounded presentation of his growth and legacy I thought. Though I did not understand what he was trying to do with some of his performance pieces (if that is how he classified his “live” pieces), I certainly had a reaction to them. Maybe that was the point he was trying to make all this time; I honestly cannot give an answer. I will say I certainly walked away from this picture with a new appreciation for people who want to be artists.
3 ¼ stars