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.
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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).
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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
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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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.
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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.
X: The Unheard Music (MVD) is one of the great rock docs of all time. Shot over a period of five years or so by W.T. Morgan, it is a lively, playfully-directed portrait of the defining L.A. punk band of the eighties, filled with interviews, stirred through with tongue-in-cheek archival clips and highlighted by a wealth of live performance footage shot specifically for the film, including footage of the band in the studio recording “White Girl” for their second album, “Wild Gift.” In the era of early MTV, they were the real deal, and even the proto-videos created by Morgan for the film have a down-and-dirty authenticity and a sense of humor that honors the band’s aesthetic. John Doe and Exene Cervenka articulate themselves well, Billy Zoom is a smiling charmer and D.J. Bonebrake’s time signature demonstration is a wonder. But it’s not simply a band bio, it’s a survey of the music industry of the day and the struggle for independent music in the corporate mindset, which Morgan puts on display next to their story.
Debuts on both DVD and Blu-ray for the film’s 25th Anniversary, with new interviews with John Doe and Exene Cervenka, a bonus outtake from a live performance and a behind-the-scenes featurette shot in 1983 among with supplements. And remember, this is a film best enjoyed by following the directions given in the opening credits: “Play this movie loud.”
For more releases, see Videodrone’s Hot Tips and Top Picks: DVDs and Blu-rays for January 3
Filmmaker James Ivory was born and educated on the west coast of the United States (where he made his initial short non-fiction films) and began his filmmaking career in earnest in India, where he made his first four feature films with the collaborators who would remain with him throughout his career: producer Ismail Merchant and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Yet his filmmaking reputation today rests predominantly on his British films, and his first British production was a modest documentary made for BBC Television.
Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972) is a 55-minute portrait of the celebrated Bengali scholar Nirad Chaudhuri. Author, intellectual, scholar and expert in numerous fields of study, Chaudhuri was a journalist and magazine writer, writing in both English and Bengali, when Britain ruled India, and became a controversial voice when he published his autobiography, The Autobiography of a Brown Man, in 1951. (The title of Ivory’s documentary was taken from Chaudhuri’s book.) He was an outspoken critic of both the British rule of the colonial era and of Indian rule since and remained controversial even as he gained respect and acceptance in India and abroad.
The BBC commissioned Merchant Ivory Productions to produce Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization in 1972, while Chaudhuri was researching a book on Sanskrit scholar Max Mller in Oxford and London. It was a fitting match of subject and filmmakers: a production partnership founded in India with an American director (Ivory), an Indian producer (Merchant) and a Polish-German writer (Jhabvala), all with cosmopolitan educations and experiences. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala knew the celebrated Indian scholar from her life in Delhi, where she was a frequent guest at his dinner parties, but Ivory, who had briefly met Chaudhuri in India, was barely acquainted with him when he embarked on the documentary. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Ivory joked to interviewer Robert Emmet Long in the book James Ivory in Conversation.
Continue reading on the TCM website.
Plays on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, September 29
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), directed by Rob Epstein and narrated by Harvey Fierstein, profiles San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person elected to political office in the United States. Milk was then and remains still a major figure in American politics, a symbol of social change as well as a hugely successful politician. His death at the hands of Dan White, a fellow member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, was a seismic shock through the gay and lesbian community that reverberated across the nation. Dan White killed two people that day, yet the murder of Milk was so emotionally devastating that it all but overshadows the killing of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.
Harvey Milk became a symbol for both how far the gay and lesbian community had come, and how far it had to go in terms of cultural acceptance in the community at large. The Times of Harvey Milk acknowledges Milk’s importance as a trailblazer even as it makes a point of revealing the man — and the savvy politician — behind the symbol. The documentary itself is almost as much a landmark: the first openly gay film to win an Academy Award (according to historian B. Ruby Rich) and a portrait that spread not just the story of Harvey Milk and his accomplishments to a wider audience but portrayed gay pride and civic pride as one and the same, and revealed an openly, proudly gay man as, simply, a man, a member of the community, and a human being whose life touched so many others.
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The Comedian's Comedian
“American: The Bill Hicks Story” (BBC)
Bill Hicks, the “comedian’s comedian” and the most politically satirical comic of his generation, was practically a rock star in England but only really became famous in the US after his death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 32 in 1994. So no surprise that this marvelous documentary portrait of the man and the artist, told through the stories and remembrances of his family, friends and colleagues, comes from the BBC.
On the one hand, it’s the story of a guy from a small Texas town who hits the open mic clubs in Houston, heads to Los Angeles, spirals into drinking and drugs, gets clean, gets increasingly socially and politically pointed in his act and remains on the fringes of success in the U.S. even as he’s revered in Britain. But Hicks defies the familiar stereotype of the self-destructive comic and angry genius. But for his spiral into addiction, a brief period of erratic performances and missed shows and a near career-crash, Hicks remained close with his family and his childhood friends even as he lived on the road, from show to show. After being diagnosed with late-stage cancer, he returned to the people he loved and who loved him to make music, make comedy and let them know they mattered to him. Hicks may have been angry, but his anger was focused on injustice, hypocrisy and lies and he used humor to cut to the heart of what he saw was wrong with the country. That, according to his friends, was what made him a patriot.
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Never Apologize (Warner) is not a documentary, it’s a theater piece: Malcolm McDowell’s remembrance of director (and his longtime friend) Lindsay Anderson, who launched McDowell’s screen career by casting him in as the rebellious hero of “If…” The full title of the one-man-show, a mix of readings from Anderson’s papers, personal reminiscence and re-enactments of memorable moments, is “Never Apologize: A Personal Visit with Lindsay Anderson [And Their Celebrated Colleagues],” and along with his affectionate impression of Anderson is a collection of delicious impressions of “their celebrated colleagues,” among them Alan Bates, Richard Harris and John Ford. (The title, by the way, is a quote that Anderson appropriated from Ford’s “Rio Grande.”)
It’s a touching portrait of a great artist and a private man and McDowell brings an intimacy to the often hilarious stories, but McDowell is a raconteur rather than a biographer and this is a celebration of Anderson’s life, his tribute to a mentor, a collaborator and a friend. The production is a collection of bits and pieces from a private life, but together they offer some insight to a man who let few people past his public persona, delivered without sentiment, only affection and respect. Originally performed at the 2004 Edinburgh Festival as a tribute to the director, documentarian Mike Kaplan recorded a 2007 performance and, with the blessing of McDowell, supplements the performance with illustrative stills and film clips for this production. The production was shot on video and the visual quality of the disc is decidedly low-fidelity, but that’s not much of an issue in a production where imagery is secondary to performance. No supplements.
Continue reading for more releases of foreign and classics films this week on DVD at MSN Videodrone
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno (Flicker Alley)
Serge Bromberg is one of the most dedicated film preservationists in the world today. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, his documentary on the legendary unfinished film, represents a different kind of detective work but the same spirit of discovery, preservation and presentation of cinema saved from neglect.
In 1964, French director Henri-George Clouzot—a man at the top of his game and his fame for such films as The Wages of Fear, Diabolique and La vérité (though largely forgotten today, it was an Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film)—was given carte-blanche by Columbia Pictures to make a dream project.
His film, a portrait of obsessive jealousy in a husband (Sergio Reggiani) who becomes insanely paranoid and maniacally controlling of his beautiful young wife (Romy Schneider, then one of the most luminous stars in Europe), collapsed in the director’s own obsessive camera tests and experiments, increasingly demanding direction and endless reshoots. He pushed the production overbudget and over schedule, drove his leading man to quit in exasperation and became distracted in exacting minutiae at the cost of the big picture. When a heart attack leveled him, the producers to pull the plug. It’s like Hearts of Darkness as reconceived by Werner Herzog as an epic failure: one man’s vision and creative ambition fueled by obsession and growing megalomania and laid low by the limits of physical reality, production economics and the limits of his own body.
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