BB King: The life of Riley (2012, Jon Brewer)

Categories: 2012 and Movies.

This is an in-depth but rather fawning documentary about B.B. King, a man who has a decent claim as the greatest living blues musician, or at least among them. It’s more of a celebration than a documentary or proper biography – though there is lots of information about his upbringing, it does feel like a well-rehearsed story – and you’re not going to learn too much about the man’s personal life (beyond a few tidbits). But if you like the blues, or if you like music history, there’s lots here to enjoy; both about his influences and his influence on Read More

The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1996, Michael Epstein, Thomas Lennon)

Categories: 1996 and TV.

This is an interesting documentary about Orson Welles and his rise to fame, and what happened when he took on one of the most powerful men in America. It’s pretty standard PBS-style but, beyond that, there’s lots of interesting information about both Heast and Welles, their lives and how they were eerily similar personalities. If you’re into movie history – or, frankly, the history of the United States in general – then this is worth seeking out. 7/10 Read More

The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979, Patricio Guzman)

Categories: 1975, 1976, 1979, and Movies.

This is a remarkable 3-part documentary (cinema verite style) that exhaustively covers the political crisis that led to the 1973 coup in Chile and the aftermath. And when I say ‘covers’ I mean it’s an eyewitness account that was smuggled out of Chile. It has to stand as one of the film landmarks of the decade, one of the landmarks of cinema verite and it may qualify as one of the great documentaries of all time, though I have some reservations (see below). Read More

Battle for Brooklyn (2011 Michael Galinsky, Suki Hawley)

Categories: 2011 and Movies.

I have always had problems with the concept of eminent domain, or at least ever since I flirted with anarcism in my early 20s and developed my civil libertarianism. I don’t like the idea that government can decide to take the property of individuals because of some vague concept of “greater good.” But, that being said, eminent domain is a necessary practicality – without eminent domain we would have fewer highways, power plants, and so forth. Basically, if we want public projects, we need some degree of eminent domain written into constitutions. Read More

Baraka (1992, Ron Fricke)

Categories: 1992 and Movies.

This is one of those non-narrative “documentaries” in the grand tradition of Koyaanisqatsi, which are really just beautiful film sequences compellingly edited together and scored. It should come as no surprise that the director of this film was a cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi. And like that film, this one appears to be making a similar point about how certain forms of human life are destroying the planet. The thesis appears to be that our spiritual traditions are better at caring for the earth than the rest of us, but I could be projecting. If that’s true, it’s a simplistic idea and Read More

Bananas!* (2009, Fredrik Gertten)

Categories: 2009 and Movies.

This is a maddening, frustrating and outrage-sparking documentary about Dole’s (nee Standard Fruit Company) use of a banned pesticide in Nicaragua (and Costa Rica and Honduras) and how it deeply affected the lives of workers on plantations. There are great things about this movie, including the depiction of actual courtroom arguments, and the clear evidence that Dole ignored Dow’s warning (the warning from the manufacture of the pesticide) to not use said pesticide. But there are problems: it’s clear that the filmmakers befriended one of the attorneys suing Dole and… SPOILER ALERT Read More

Ballad of the Littler Soldier (1984, Werner Herzog, Denis Reichle)

Categories: 1984 and TV.

This is a film made by Herzog and a photographer about soldiers, child soldiers and the consequences of war in Nicaragua and Honduras. It’s brief (made for TV) and is basically just reportage. It has no obvious structure and it really just feels like a film made to try to let people know what was happening at the time. It’s pretty un-Herzogian in that sense. It’s certainly interesting – I knew nothing about this – but it’s hardly an essential piece of his oeuvre. 6/10 Read More

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985, Werner Herzog)

Categories: 1985 and TV.

This documentary Herzog made for TV focuses almost entirely on the preparation for a never before attempted double ascent of two of the highest mountains in world. In typical fashion, Herzog is more interested in the climbers than he is in the climb itself. One of the climbers in particular is articulate and philosophical about what he does to an extent that is refreshing and informative. And though this is hardly one of Herzog’s essential documentaries, it is yet another of his penetrating insights into human beings who attempt to push the limits of what is possible. 7/10 Read More

Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011, Michael Rapaport)

Categories: 2011 and Movies.

Full disclosure: I do not listen to Hip Hop. I have heard some here and there – at friend’s houses, on the radio, and at concerts, and now, for my podcast – but I really know nothing about it. This is an interesting documentary about a hip hop group I know nothing about it. It’s a little odd that some of the interviewees aren’t great, given the huge amount of people they interviewed (as evidenced by the closing credits). But the movie presents the history while only hinting at the breakup, then it deals with the breakup and some semblance Read More

The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014, Chapman Way, Maclain Way)

Categories: 2014, Baseball, and Movies.

This is a sub-30 for 30 quality sports documentary (or low end 30 for 30) that makes up for its lack of film quality with the incredible story of the Portland Mavericks, possibly the most popular single A team of all time and the only independent baseball team of its era. It’s obvious to me that these guys have never made a movie before. And some of the interviewees – particularly Kurt Russell, who clearly cannot be objective about his father – are a little too self-serving. But the story is just too damn good. Did you know Kurt Russell’s Read More

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010, Andrei Ujica)

Categories: 2010 and Movies.

This film attempts to paint a portrait of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu simply by assembling and editing together excerpts from something like 1,000 hours of official footage. Because of the way it is assembled – just this footage, no talking heads, no narration, no obvious message – what you make of this movie appears to be entirely up to you. Though I believe that the director reveals his views subtly, mostly through his use of audio, whether you believe this portrait is sympathetic or critical depends on what you bring to the film (and that is as it should Read More

The Art of the Steal (2009, Don Argott)

Categories: 2009 and Movies.

This is a great documentary about a private art collection that I had never heard of but that is larger than most museum’s and is one of the largest art collections in the world. The documentary is very much on one side, but it’s told in a True Crime style that really makes you enraged about how this takeover was perpetrated. There’s nothing especially great about the telling, just that it convinces you of their point of view – whether or not it is correct – and makes you hurt for the art collection and its defenders. This is a Read More

Are All Men Pedophiles? (2013, Jan-Willem Breue)

Categories: 2013 and Movies.

Putting aside the sensationalist title, there are a lot of interesting things that are discussed in this film, that might make for an interesting documentary. For example: the evolutionary imperative for males to seek out younger females in order to insure procreation. (And there are numerous others.) But this is not that movie. This is a 70 minute film that feels like it was edited (and the sound was recorded) in someone’s basement. It is horribly structured and feels, at times, like an apologia for the filmmaker. (I would not be surprised if the director or someone he knows personally Read More

Art and Craft (2014, Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, Mark Becker)

Categories: 2014 and Movies.

This is a crazy story about a mentally handicapped man who is one of the greatest art forgers in US history, how he was exposed and, eventually accepted, if not outright celebrated. (Why was he never brought to justice? Well, I guess you’ll just have to watch the movie.) It’s an incredible story and Mark Landis is an incredible character. The film itself is not all it could be and, without having too much basis, I suspect it’s the three directors. The pacing is a little odd, and the way the story unfolds, though engaging, could be told in a Read More

The Armstrong Lie (2013, Alex Gibney)

Categories: 2013, Movies, and Sports.

This is a fascinating film. It began as a documentary about Lance Armstrong’s 2009 comeback attempt but, before it was finished, new allegations emerged about Armstrong’s use of performance-enhancing drugs and the film was eventually altered significantly to focus on the revelations that soon followed. So there are really two movies that have been combined into one. One which may have started out as a puff piece and a sequel, as it were, that tries to figure out how so many people could have believed Armstrong for so long. And it pretty much works. What we get is nuanced approach Read More

TIFF 2015: 25 April (2015, Leanne Pooley) (5/15)

Categories: 1915, 2015, and Movies.

This is a fascinating attempt at creating a different kind of documentary about war and the past in general: the diaries and journals of six participants in the Gallipoli campaign (it’s the 100th anniversary this year) are used as the sole narration for an animated film about the campaign. This film is not realistic, and perhaps that was one of my hangups. The filmmakers were not attempting to be realistic, rather they were trying to approach the subject in a unique way, which they certainly did. Some of the animation is, for me, too ‘graphic novel’ for such a serious Read More

The Arbor (2010, Clio Barnard)

Categories: 2010 and Movies.

This is an inventive, provocative and daring “documentary” about the daughter of the late British playwright Andrea Dunbar, someone I’ve never heard of. Taking its cue from a play made to celebrate the anniversary of Dunbar’s first play (or to investigate its legacy), this documentary has actors lip sync audio recordings of people involved in Dunbar’s life and her daughter’s. It combines this with video recordings of Dunbar herself and excerpts from Dunbar’s first play. This approach may seem pretentious or unnecessarily arty, but it actually works extremely well given the importance of the play in the life of the Read More

Bigfoot’s Reflection (2007, Evan Beloff)

Categories: 2007 and TV.

This is a weird, brief film about Sasquatch that tries both to convince us that Sasquatch exists but, at the same time, attempts to be the objective about it, by including interviews with (a couple) skeptics. The film utterly fails to address the biggest problems with the Sasquat theory: no fossil record and no corpses. Whether or not the film of Sasquatch shown in the film is real – and though I suspect it is not, I cannot prove that – doesn’t really matter, as the other evidence is the worst kind of evidence: eye-witness accounts and foot print casts. Read More

And Everything is Going Fine (2010, Steven Soderbergh)

Categories: 2010 and Movies.

I know virtually nothing about Spalding Gray; I’ve heard of the film of Swimming to Cambodia but that’s it. Soderbergh takes an interesting and, I would say, appropriate approach. Almost the entire film is excerpts of films of Gray and interviews of him and it’s a daring, compelling approach given that Soderbergh does not introduce Gray at all and you have to learn with the film. Gray’s approach is extremely narcissistic in one view, but also extremely illuminating and, like it or not, he’s a good storyteller. I think of things like Mortified and think, wow was Gray ever prescient, Read More

L’amour fou (2010, Pierre Thoretton)

Categories: 2010 and Movies.

I can’t tell if this documentary is more interested in Yves Saint Laurent or his art collection and his various houses. As told by his partner, this movie feels, at times, like it’s more about him and his memories / view of Saint Laurent than anything else. And then we get to watch the man become even more rich, as the auction of their art collection rakes in tens of millions. If this is meant to a be a portrait of the man, it’s entirely too devoted to Pierre Berge and his own thoughts and feelings. If this is meant Read More

American: The Bill Hicks Story (2009, Matt Harlock, Paul Thomas)

Categories: 2009 and Movies.

This is a very conventional documentary about a comedian I knew literally nothing about that is marred by terrible CGI but is greatly aided by both a lack of talking heads and an absolute ton of archival footage. As someone who doesn’t know him I felt the film did a good job of both conveying to me why people remember him so fondly and suggesting I might want to listen to his albums. 7/10 Read More

American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein (2009, David Ridgen, Nicholas Rossier)

Categories: 2009 and Movies.

This film does a good job of bringing some level of balance to an extremely controversial figure. Though it is clear that the filmmakers are on Finkelstein’s side, they try rather hard to show the other opinion, that Finkelstein is a menace/a self-hating jew/a charlatan/etc. The film is pretty typically told, for its era, and nothing about it stands out from a storytelling sense beyond the attempt at objectivity. If you’re at all interested in academic freedom or the Israeli-Palestine conflict, you should watch it. 7/10 Read More

An Honest Liar (2014, Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein)

Categories: 2014 and Movies.

This documentary begins as a puff piece on the Amazing Randi, the magician you may or may not have heard of (if you’re younger) who has dedicated himself to exposing frauds – psychics, mentalists, preachers, and so forth. He is perhaps America’s most famous sceptic. And, as a puff piece, it’s pretty interesting, if overly fawning. But then, well, things take a turn. It’s quite a turn, and I would advise that, if you have any interest in magic, scepticism, the paranormal, or what have you, that you watch this movie without learning any more about it, and that includes Read More

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015, Liz Garbus)

Categories: 2015 and Movies.

I’ve not yet gotten around to listening to Nina Simone so this is all new to me. The filmmakers do an excellent job – a superior job – of combining archival pictures and Simone’s own audio interview – with a relative paucity of talking heads – to give a fantastic of Simone’s life and music, and her times – it’s almost as if it’s told by her herself. This is how you do a biography on film. 8/10 Read More

Altman (2014, Robert Mann)

Categories: 2014 and Movies.

Calling this a documentary would be something of a misnomer, it’s more of a love letter. The film is not much concerned with who Altman was as a person, it is rather concerned with who he was as an Artist and what his Art means to both the film industry and his family. And it is perfectly willing to tell Altman’s own view of his work as if that is the one we should remember. I often find this kind of approach problematic, when the subject is maybe not so esteemed, or not so known, but in this case I Read More

Amazing Journey: The Story of the Who (2007, Paul Crowder, Murray Lerner, Parris Patton)

Categories: 2007 and Movies.

This is a fawning, awkward fluff piece of one of the greatest bands to come out of the British Invasion. I love the Who – there was probably a time in my life when they were my favourite band – but this film feels like the Official Version, something vetted by Daltrey and Townshend so that we are okay with the fact that they have continued on after the deaths of half the band. I know it’s cool to reunite now, but I am firmly on the side of Zeppelin here. The film is awkwardly episodic – we’re meant to Read More

The American Scream (2012, Michael Stephenson)

Categories: 2012 and Movies.

This is a fascinating movie about three families (really three men) who convert their houses into Haunted Houses every Halloween in Fairhaven, Mass. I don’t know if there are places in Toronto, but I have never seen anything like in person, outside of professional Haunted Houses. I also had no idea that this was such a thing in the US, or that there were conventions – did you know there’s a convention??? – and now I kind of want to look for one here. The film isn’t a great movie, but it’s fascinating and I had no idea about any Read More

American Promise (2013, Joe Brewster, Michele Stephenson)

Categories: 2013 and Movies.

This a films that seems to want to be the Hoop Dreams of education. It takes the premise and applies it to two black kids going to a white private school. It is at times moving and at times frustrating. It has a massive, massive problem: I believe one of the central premises of the film is how our educational institutions influence our children. And that’s all well and good – it’s a correct thesis. However, it’s kind of ridiculous to make a documentary about how that happens when the film itself is obviously having a huge affect on these Read More

Beware of Mr. Baker (2012, Jay Bulger)

Categories: 2012 and Movies.

This movie starts off on the wrong foot. I hate when filmmakers involve themselves in their subjects when they themselves are not who we are interested in. But once Bulger gets to Baker’s house, he gets out of the way almost entirely. Baker is such a character – and his story and his family’s story is so compelling – that you quickly forget about how Bulger involved himself in the early parts of the film. The animation is pointless in my mind but otherwise the film is structured chronologically which is so refreshing given the desire of so many documentaries Read More