Category: Documentary

Jul 12 2014

DVD: ‘The People vs. Paul Crump’

Paul Crump, an African American Chicago man convicted of murdering a security guard during the robbery of a meatpacking plant and sentenced to death in 1953, had faced 14 stays of execution when William Friedkin, a young television producer, took on his story. The People vs. Paul Crump became his directorial debut, a documentary that eschews any pretense of balance and instead makes Crump’s case directly to the viewers. This is documentary as advocacy, championing a cause with passionate and persuasive filmmaking, and the filmmaking is indeed provocative and compelling. The first shot of the film, an evocative shot of Crump leaning against the prison bars of his cell while another inmate blows a harmonica, comes right out of a social drama of injustice, immediately putting our sympathies with Crump.

It starts conventionally enough, with newspaper reporter John Justin Smith narrating in hardboiled newsman mode as he outlines Crump’s case with a mix of historical fact and personal connection. Smith introduces us the man behind the story in an interview that plays out like an old movie, with Smith hammering questions at Crump like a tough but committed investigative reporter grilling an indicted politician, skeptical but moved by the testimony and the compromised evidence against him. Crump comes off calm and measured in his responses and his confessions of other crimes and failings give the ring to truth to his account of events. Then Friedkin jumps from the static new newsreel interview style to a stylized recreation of the crime with actors playing out the robbery on the actual locations. Friedkin shoots it with a mobile handheld camera, a cinema verité style by way of a B-movie crime thriller or hard-hitting exploitation exposé.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Jul 08 2014

Videophiled: Imagining ‘Jodorowsky’s Dune’

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Jodorowsky’s Dune (Sony, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, Cable VOD) is probably not “the greatest science film never made,” as the movie poster tagline insists, but this journey through the most improbable screen epic embarked upon in the seventies isn’t really about mourning what could have been. Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of the aggressively trippy cult classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, is a spellbinder of a storyteller and it’s not hard to get caught up in the vision he spins of his dream adaptation of the Frank Herbert novel, which he and his producer, Michel Seydoux, managed to option. With his artistic idealism and beaming smile (the man lights up with creative energy whenever he starts describing his vision of the film), Jodorowsky’s enthusiasm is intoxicating. It’s no wonder he attracted such a passionately loyal and dedicated team of collaborators—his “warriors,” as he called them—along the way, including artists Jean “Moebius” Girard, H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, special effects designer Dan O’Bannon, and actors Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali.

If filmmaker Frank Pavich gets caught up in the dreams of the Jodorowsky and his warriors and the hyperbole of commentators like Richard Stanley and Nicolas Winding Refn, filmmakers who proclaim the project some kind of lost masterpiece so visionary that Hollywood was scared of the possibilities, he at least gives voice to the more measured response of the Hollywood studios via producer Gary Kurtz. Any practical look at the project finds a rickety foundation built on promises rather than contracts, a budget insufficient to meet the scope of Jodorowsky’s ideas, and elaborate special effects beyond anything Hollywood would accomplish for years to come. And that doesn’t even address Jodorowsky’s utter dismissal of studio concerns of his ability to create a commercial film for the millions of dollars he was asking for. He was ready to make a 12-hour epic if that’s what his muse demanded.

What’s most interesting is not that the project failed to get made but that it got as far as it did and Jodorowsky and Pavich let us revel in the conceptual art, costume and character designs, storyboards, musical concepts and other elements that Jodorowsky pulled together for his presentation. He gives us an art movie of a space opera with a spiritual message and a mad poetry to its execution. And rather than treat this as a wake for a stillborn film (as many of the interview subjects do), Jodorowsky celebrates the entire endeavor as a creative effort in its own right, which inspired ideas that he used in other projects. It’s unlikely that he could have brought to the screen anything resembling the grand vision he shares with us given his resources and the technology of the era, but it sure is exciting it imagine, and that imagination is what powers the film: the sense of artistic freedom, idealism, freewheeling creativity at work in the preparation, and the excitement he raised in his warriors, inspiring them to imagine beyond what had been done before. That is a work of art in its own right.

The Blu-ray+DVD Combo also includes 46 minutes of deleted scenes, or rather expanded sections that explore elements of the project in more detail than the finished film allows.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Jul 06 2014

DVD: ‘Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction’

“Do I have any lines? I don’t want any lines. How about I do nothing? How about silence?”

Harry Dean Stanton, the veteran character actor with (by his own count) over 250 film appearances to his credit, would rather not talk about himself. Or about his family, his life, his career, or the craft of acting. Which makes him a curious subject for a documentary. Director Sophie Huber follows him around Los Angeles, films him hanging out at his favorite L.A. bar, Dan Tana’s, where he’s known the bartender for more than 40 years, and shoots him in his home singing folk songs and standards between sessions trying to get the actor to open up.

“How would you describe yourself?” asks friend and frequent director David Lynch. “There is no self,” he answers, his craggy, lined face maintaining a nearly unreadable stoniness. “How would you like to be remembered?” “Doesn’t matter.” He’s not simply an actor with nothing to prove. He’s a private man who prefers to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself and a few chosen friends. Stanton opens up a little over coffee and cigarettes with Lynch, who makes a game of lobbing questions from a card provided by Huber and then spins off in remembrances of their long history together, and he eases into reminiscing with Kris Kristofferson, who credits Stanton for his first film role in Cisco Pike and then launches into his iconic song “The Pilgrim”: “He’s a poet, he’s a picker. He’s a prophet, he’s a pusher. He’s a pilgrim and a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned.” Stanton was one of the inspirations for those lyrics, according to Kristofferson, along with a few others, and the two start checking off all those early seventies characters who fit the bill.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Jul 02 2014

Videophiled: Errol Morris explores ‘The Unknown Known’

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The Unknown Known (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray, DVD) is not exactly a companion piece to The Fog of War, Errol Morris’ documentary on former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara. But like that 2003 documentary this takes on a former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and a foreign war that was launched and (mis)managed under his watch, with indefensible misconduct and scandals, and it is built on defining moments culled from hours of one-on-one interviews with the subject. Where it differs is the response of the subject: Rumsfeld never admits that the basis for war was built on a failure of intelligence or even that it was mistake to invade Iraq and he smiles his explanations to the camera. His smile, with those half-moon eyes suggesting a grandfatherly affection backed by experience and cocksure authority, is the defining image of the film.

Errol Morris is one of the most inventive and engaging non-fiction filmmakers in the world today, using a strong visual presentation to pull audiences in while building his case on excellent research and choice archival materials. But it is his talent as an interviewer and interrogator, honed over decades of filmmaking, that gives the film its dramatic power and its educational punch. Using his trademark Interrotron, a set-up which puts the camera in place of the interviewer as far as the subject is concerned (so they speak directly into the lens while engaging Morris), he confronts Rumsfeld without coming off as confrontational and uses silence as an editorial and a dramatic device. Those dead spaces after Rumsfeld’s statements suggest both an incompleteness and a directorial disagreement. Rumsfeld himself seems to take the production as a platform to lay out the legacy of his statesmanship with the confidence of authority behind his perfectly articulated reasoning that often never quite answers the questions posed to him. There is no doubt that Rumsfeld is both a smart, savvy political players and a polished media creature. But for all the easy-going pose of humility, he isn’t the least bit humble.

Blu-ray and DVD with commentary by filmmaker Errol Morris and a short interview with Morris discussing the genesis and the production of the documentary. Also features the 57-minute archival presentation “Third Annual Report of the Secretaries of Defense,” an hour-long recording of a conference from 1989 featuring Rumsfeld, Robert McNamara and Caspar Weinberger, and the text of Morris’ four-part New York Times op-ed piece “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld.”

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD and digital at Cinephiled

Apr 22 2014

Videophiled: ‘Bettie Page Reveals All’

BettiePageBettie Page Reveals All (Music Box, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, On Demand) doesn’t quite live up to its title, at least not when it comes to delving into the darkest days of her turbulent life.

Bettie Page was the good girl and the bad girl all wrapped up in one package, the girl next door in a bikini and bangs who managed to look innocent and sweet in hundreds of 1950s bondage photos and film shorts, and a model who made nude shots look natural and innocent. She disappeared from the public eye in 1957 but became a celebrated icon and sex symbol when her image was rediscovered in the 1980s by artists and fashion designers. The title is a harmless double entendre that refers to her career baring all in both amateur camera club sessions and professional shoots with Bunny Yeager, which landed her a spot as a Playboy Playmate, and to the film’s most interesting dimension: it is narrated by Page herself through frank and forthcoming audio interviews conducted before her death in 2008. It is audio only for she would not let herself be filmed or photographed in the last decades of her life.

Director Mark Mori clearly loves his subject and seems to be protective of her, even after her death. She fearlessly discusses the dark episodes of her life – neglected by her mother, abused by father, sexually assaulted as a young woman in New York, bad marriages, and her struggles with depression and schizophrenia that resulted in 10 years of psychiatric care in mental institution late in her life – with the same matter-of-fact openness of discussing her happy times. “I never had any bad feelings about posing in the nude or semi-nude outfits. I found I could make more money in two hours than I made all week.” Mori, meanwhile, offers a familiar mix of biographical detail, adoring commentary by experts and witnesses, and illustrative photographs (both clothed and nude) and clips of super-8 fetish and bondage shorts and 16mm cheesecake films from her career as a model.

What the portrait misses is any depth in its exploration of her life. Her first-person narration offers a great glimpse into what kind of person she was but the commentators (who include Hugh Hefner, modern burlesque artist Dita von Teese, cult actress Mamie Van Doren and fifties stripper Tempest Storm) repeat the familiar line of her charm and sweetness and impact as an icon before her time and Mori reports on her life without really exploring it, never sifting through contradictions or even acknowledging them. Page reportedly yelled “Lies!” at a screening of The Notorious Bettie Page (the 2006 feature starring Gretchen Mol as Page) but the film doesn’t take it any further: what upset her, what did she think the film get so wrong, and does Mori agree with her. If anything, Bettie Page Reveals All keeps the real Bettie Page an enigma and leaves the viewer interested in learning more about this woman who inadvertently became an icon.

The DVD also includes bonus archival footage of Page, audio interviews with Page, and other supplements.

More New Releases on disc and digital at Cinephiled

Apr 07 2014

DVD: ‘I Am Divine’

Divine is, of course, the name of the most famous (or perhaps more accurately infamous) drag queen of the 1970s and 1980s, and the subtitle to Jeffrey Schwarz’s I Am Divine–”The True Story of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World”–comes right out of Divine’s stage show introduction. But the title is also a commentary on the appropriation of Divine, not as an identity but as a character created by Glenn Milstead, the overweight, gay Baltimore outsider who worked in a beauty shop and found his place with a group of self-described freaks (John Waters, Mink Stole, David Lochary and others) who reveled in ridiculing the culture around them. When Waters started making movies with his friends, Glenn put on a dress, caked his face with make-up, and delivered an outsized, campy performance that channeled Hollywood melodrama, vamping stage diva, and B-movie horror. Waters bestowed the name Divine on Glenn for the credits of their first film together, Roman Candles, and he embraced it with a mad, wild-eyed passion.

I Am Divine opens with the premiere of the original 1988 Hairspray, the film that brought Divine out of cult circles and into suburban theaters and mainstream culture. Glenn had spent years trying to break through as an actor apart from the Divine person and with glowing reviews of Hairspray, as well as a role in Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind (not as Divine but as Glenn Milstead, dressed in a suit and playing a mob boss) and an upcoming role on the TV sitcom Married… With Children, he was poised to finally do just that. He died of a heart attack, brought on by obesity and poor health, the night before his first day of shooting on the sitcom.

I Am Divine is the story of both Divine, the outrageous gargoyle of a glamour queen who both caricatured and embraced drag culture, and of Harris Glenn Milstead, the shy, generous man who was kicked out of the house by his parents when he came out of the closet to them.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Nov 10 2013

DVD: ‘Stories We Tell’

Sarah Polley has been an actress from almost the time she could speak. The daughter of two actors in Toronto, Canada, she attended her first audition when she was five years old and made her feature debut at age six in the film One Magic Christmas. As a child she starred in the TV shows Ramona and Avonlea and in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and as a young adult she earned a reputation is one of the most interesting and talented actresses of her generation for performances in The Sweet Hereafter and Go, but she has consistently shied away from the media spotlight and splashy roles in mainstream pictures, preferring to take on challenging parts, work with interesting directors, and become a filmmaker in her own right.

Stories We Tell is Polley’s third feature as a director (after Away From Her and Take This Waltz) and her first documentary. It’s also a kind of autobiography by way of family mystery. Sarah is the youngest of the Polley siblings, born years after her older brother, and was only 11 when her mother Diane died in 1990. It was just Sarah and her father, Michael, in the house after Diane’s death. So she turns the camera on her family, interviewing brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, friends of the family, and folks whose relationship to Sarah isn’t clear until well into the film. They all tell their own stories about the vivacious and lively Diane while her father reads narration that he himself wrote, adding his own story to the mix. The film opens on Michael Polley, her father, in a recording studio with Sarah on the other side of the glass manning the controls and asking her dad, ever the professional, to retake a line or two as necessary. It’s only the first reminder that this is, as the title says, all about telling stories.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

May 18 2012

Blu-ray: Ken Burns’ ‘The War’

The War (Paramount) – “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.”

17 years after making history with his epic documentary series chronicling the American Civil War, Ken Burns goes to war once again. Teaming up with Lynn Novick, he takes on the good war and the greatest generation with his trademark approach: history from the perspective of the everyday humans who fought, died, and endured.

The broad contours of history are shown through newsreels and photos, home movies and newspaper headlines, and heard through radio broadcasts and period music. But it’s the words and stories of soldier, sailors, airmen, Marines, POWs (both military and civilian), and citizens toiling and waiting on the homefront, that give human dimension to the history. There are no experts offering their perspective this time around, only living witnesses and the words of the dead through letters and newspaper editorials (sparingly used and read by the likes of Tom Hanks and others), and their simple eloquence brings a poignant, unforced poetry to the experience.

Burns doesn’t shy away from the contradictions of the history – the segregation and racism and unforgivable internment of Japanese-Americans in a nation ostensibly fighting for freedom – as he celebrates the sacrifices and achievements of everyone involved in the war effort. “A thousand veterans of the War die everyday. This film is dedicated to all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf.”

Seven episodes (running over 15 hours) on six discs, with commentary by filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick on Episode One and Episode Four (the D-Day accounting “Pride of Our Nations”) and the 38-minute documentary “Making The War,” which outlines the project’s aims and approach. Other supplements include 24 minutes of deleted scenes (including Andy Rooney in a segment on war correspondents) and 55 minutes of Bonus Interviews with 14 of the film’s witnesses (including decorated 442nd veteran and Hawaii State Senator Daniel Inouye).

More Blu-ray releases at Videodrone

Apr 18 2012

Celebrate Earth Day with ‘Born to Be Wild’ and ‘Frozen Planet’

Sunday, April 22 is Earth Day and it’s no surprise that two of the most high-profile natural history documentaries of the past year are scheduled for release this week. But marketing moves aside, these are both excellent productions and fine ways to remind us what we’re trying to preserve.

Frozen Planet” (BBC), from the creators of “Planet Earth,” explores life in both the Arctic and Antarctic with the same high-definition photography and impressive wildlife views that have defined the best of the British natural history documentaries of the past decade. The show introduces us to the animals in the frozen deserts and seas and the seasons of these extreme climes, as well as the effects of global climate change on the habitat. “At first glance, Frozen Planet, the latest epic David Attenborough documentary series…, is nothing new: what it is, however, is brilliant,” praises Telegraph TV critic Tom Chivers. “This was a masterpiece: may he continue to make many more.” More reviews here. The series ran on BBC in Britain and Discovery in the U.S.

Seven episodes on Blu-ray and DVD, plus short “making of” featurettes for each episode and video diaries among the supplements. Three discs on Blu-ray and DVD.

Born to Be Wild” (Warner) is a more modest production, a 41-minute documentary on efforts to protect and preserve animals in the wild through the stories of two dedicated doctors: Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas in Borneo and Dr. Daphne Sheldrick in Kenya. They both lead teams to rescue and raise orphaned animals while preparing them to survive in the wild as adults. We watch Galdikas with a delightful brood of baby orangutans and Sheldrick raising a baby elephant and, yes, this production is loaded with adorable animal antics, as well as majestic views of the wilds of Africa and Indonesia (the production was shot on large-gauge film for IMAX theaters) and the animals that live there. Morgan Freeman narrates. More reviews here.

The Blu-ray edition features five bonus “webisode” shorts plus a bonus DVD and Ultraviolet digital copy for instant streaming and download. Also available On Demand.

For more releases, see Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs, Blu-rays and streaming video for April 17

Apr 10 2012

True Stories: ‘Into the Abyss’

In the past couple of decades, German filmmaker Werner Herzog has become as famous for his provocative, curious, first-person documentaries as for his visionary fiction films. Into the Abyss (IFC) is one of his best and most provocative, an engagement with the death penalty in America through this profile of the human beings on both sides of a death penalty verdict in Texas.

Michael Perry, convicted of triple homicide in the course of a car theft, is clearly no innocent man and Herzog lays out the senseless brutality of the murders and the consequences of his actions through interviews with the friends and family members of the murder. His point isn’t that this is some miscarriage of justice, but of acknowledging that Perry, who was 18 when he committed his crimes, is a human being, and as Herzog says early on, “I don’t believe human beings should be executed.”

Herzog uses police crime scene video and a police detective’s commentary to reconstruct the crime but modestly shows no violence or dead bodies on screen, while a field of graves markers (with numbers only, no names on the crosses) and the remembrances of a prison pastor and a former state executioner illustrate the legacy of executed criminals.

It is also a devastating portrait of the culture of crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and broken families that Perry and his companions grew up in, and of the growth of Perry over his ten years on death row into an introspective, spiritual young man who acknowledges his debt (if not always his guilt). Herzog wants us to engage with the human beings on both sides of the crime and ask if this execution accomplishes anything for anyone.

Blu-ray and DVD, no supplements.

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Mar 29 2012

Cult Watch: ‘Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel’

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (Anchor Bay) profiles Roger Corman, the legendary director and producer who helped launch the careers of some of the greatest actors and filmmakers of the last five decades.

Alex Stapleton’s documentary is an entertaining, zippy tour through his career, framed with behind-the-scenes footage from the production of Dinoshark, one of his SyFy Channel original films, and an affectionate portrait of the most unlikely filmmaking rebel of his time (“I was probably the straightest guy in a pretty wild movement,” he says of his relationship to the counterculture). And if it doesn’t offer anything new to our understanding of Corman, as filmmaker, producer, or person, it nicely encapsulates his legacy and his philosophy and reminds us just how savvy and thoughtful a filmmaker he was and is. Even while making films like Dinoshark.

This is the second theatrical documentary feature about Corman—the first, Hollywood’s Wild Angel,was made almost 35 years ago (which alone gives an idea of the scope of his career)—and it appears to borrow some archival interviews from that film to mix in with new interviews from the likes of Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, Pam Grier, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, and a lot of other folks. William Shatner talks about making “The Intruder” (the only Corman film to ever lose money?). Polly Platt tells us that Corman offered her a chance to direct if she wanted to. And Nicholson tears up recalling just how many opportunities that Corman gave him in his formative years.

Continue reading at Videodrone

Feb 29 2012

Cinelove: ‘No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos’

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos (First Run) profiles friends and fellow cinematographers László Kovács and Vilmos Zsigmond, who fled Hungary in 1956 and worked their way from exploitation films to shooting some of the defining American films of the seventies and eighties. Beginning with “Easy Rider” (photographed by Kovács), they helped redefine the way movies looked, from grabbing shots on the fly for young directors making personal films on low budgets to using natural light to give a heightened realism to their studio productions. Talk about the American Dream: their immigrant experience isn’t necessarily unique, but their path certainly was, as is their legacy. Their combined filmography of 140 credits include “Paper Moon,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Deliverance,” “Five Easy Pieces,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (which earned Zsigmond his Oscar), “The Deer Hunter,” “New York, New York,” “Blow Out,” “Ghostbusters” among many others.

Director James Chressanthis directs with palpable affection for the two men, which is no surprise; a cinematographer himself, he apprenticed under both men, who were teachers as well as industry professionals. The film was released in 2008 (a year after László Kovács passed away) and screened on PBS as part of the “Independent Lens” series after film festival exposure and a limited theatrical run. DVD only, with bonus interview clips.

More releases at Videodrone.

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