Check Out These Documentaries

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I know very few people who do not like documentaries, which are produced by the hundreds if not thousands every year. Some of the most respected filmmakers lauded at film festivals are documentarians. And, yet docs are rarely screened in theaters, and specific titles are difficult to track down. Documentary distribution and marketing just seems so arbitrary and indiscriminate.

The opportunity to see documentaries on the big screen is the main reason why I continue to attend and support the Sarasota Film Festival (SFF), despite some serious misgivings about the fest. Often, filmmakers attend the screenings to introduce their films and to answer questions from the audience. I am always touched by their passion for the format as well as their thoughtful commentary. The documentary selection at the SFF was particularly good this year, and I recommend the following titles. [...MORE]

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March 26, 2016
David Kalat
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How to Make Your Own Vermeer in 3 Easy Steps

Perhaps you are the type of person who enjoys ruminating on the question of “what is art?”  If so, you’ve maybe already enjoyed such films as F for Fake, Exit Through the Gift Shop and My Kid Could Paint That, and gnawed on what they reveal about the curious unconscious calculations we put into valuing art.  What to watch next?  Well, have I got a film for you.

Directed by Teller (of Penn & Teller fame), and narrated by Penn Jillette (of… oh, you get it), Tim’s Vermeer is many things at once, and none of them the sort of things that usually go together: it’s Mythbusters meets fine art.  It’s a conspiracy thriller.  It’s a period piece.  It’s a puzzle box mystery.  It’s a comedy about a truly Quixotic, Sisyphean quest… and, for a particular subset of art aficionados and critics, it is an ugly, maddening insult.

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KEYWORDS: Penn and Teller
COMMENTS: 6
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This Is Elvis: Commemorating the King

blogopenerTo celebrate Elvis Presley’s 81st birthday, TCM will show four feature films and two documentaries this Friday, January 8. I have a soft spot for the last film scheduled, This Is Elvis, because it was the movie that motivated me to write my dissertation on Presley, which provided the core material for several books.

Produced, directed, and written by Andrew Solt and Malcolm Leo, This Is Elvis combines television appearances, news footage, voice-over narration, and re-created scenes with actors to interpret Presley’s life and career. In other words, don’t expect an expository documentary like you might find on the Biography Channel. Instead, the heavy use of re-created scenes, simulated newsreels, and feigned interviews make this an example of a performative documentary, in which the filmmakers stage scenes and direct performances to mimic drama or to depict a specific outcome.

The film is structured in flashback, which adds drama and interest to the material. It opens with the shocking news of Elvis’s death and then cuts back to his childhood in Tupelo, Mississippi. Altogether, four separate actors portray Presley at various points in his life, including Paul Boensh III who plays ten-year-old Elvis. In the childhood scenes, Elvis is depicted learning the guitar from an old blues singer, played by real-life bluesman Furry Lewis. David Scott stars as the teenage Elvis, who performs in front of his high-school class for a talent show. Dana Mackay portrays Elvis during the sequence in which his mother becomes ill and then dies, which occurred when the singer was in the army. The most authentic portrayal is given by Johnny Harra, a real-life tribute artist who plays Presley during his Vegas years.

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The Agony of Defeat: Four Falls of Buffalo (2015)

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On January 3rd, 1993, the Buffalo Bills trailed the Houston Oilers 28 – 3 at halftime. I was 11 years old, and had gone to the Wild Card playoff game at Rich Stadium outside of Buffalo, NY with my father, uncle and grandfather. They were ready to pack it in and go home, to beat the traffic and avoid the humiliation of watching the end of a blowout defeat. There was no hope, what with franchise quarterback Jim Kelly on the bench with strained knee ligaments while his replacement Frank Reich scuffled. The opposing QB Warren Moon was calmly throwing lasers appropriate for his space age name, with his second TD pass going to one Webster Slaughter, and it certainly was. Better luck next year, we must have told ourselves, when Kelly would be healed and the team that went to back-to-back Super Bowls in ’91 and ’92 returned to full speed (their offense was based around the no-huddle, up-tempo offense). But I wanted to stay to the bitter end. I savored sitting on those aluminum benches, with my Bills Starter Jacket pulled over orange overalls, pinioned in between my beer-bellied family. It was 34 degrees but I was warm, there was still time to cheer and yell and let oneself go.

So we stayed, and a miracle happened. The Oilers went up 35-3 early in the 3rd Quarter, and then the Bills preposterously kept scoring, over and over again, until they pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history, winning 41-38. It was a dream but I was there in my seat, it was impossible but there it was, right in front of me. The Bills would lose the ensuing championship, of course, as they would the following year as well, an unprecedented four-year feat of Super Bowl failure.These years are captured in all their depressing grandeur in the latest documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, Four Falls of Buffalo. 

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Empire Pictures documentary Kickstarter campaign is live! Please give!

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Documentary filmmaker Daniel Griffith (SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE DEVIL: A 50 YEAR RETROSPECTIVE [2009], THE WONDER WORLD OF K. GORDON MURRAY [2010], AS TIMELESS AS INFINITY: THE TWILIGHT ZONE LEGACY [2014] of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures has started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund his comprehensive look back at the founding and flourishing of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, “the most ambitious B-movie studio of the 1980s.” If you were renting videos back in the heyday of the VHS tape (or, if you will, Betamax), then you probably dragged home copies of RE-ANIMATOR (1985), TRANCERS (1985), GHOULIES (1985), CRAWLSPACE (1986), RAWHEAD REX (1986), FROM BEYOND (1986), TROLL (1986), DOLLS (1987), PRISON (1987), GHOULIES II (1988), CELLAR DWELLER (1988), and possibly ROBOT JOX (1990). (No, the SUBSPECIES movies weren’t Empire, they were Full Moon Entertainment, the company Band founded after selling off Empire Pictures.) I know I did! If you want to play a part in commemorating and keeping alive the memory of Empire Pictures, then look no further. 

Dolls

Look familiar?

Crawlspace

Sure it does!

Cellar Dweller

Right?

Ghoulies

Right?

TerrorVision

AMIRITE?!!

From Beyond

(Boy, we had faces then, didn’t we?)

Prison

 

Okay, time to wrap this up…

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It’s all coming back now, isn’t it? If these movies have meaning for you, if this venture excites your pineal gland, please consider throwing Daniel anything you can: $5, $10, $20… whatever works for you. Let’s keep the spirit of weirdo American independent entrepreneurship alive!

To contribute, click here.

Fine Artist / Con Artist

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TCM airs one of Orson Welles most challenging films, F for Fake, this Friday, May 22, at 1:30am. The film is so unique that it is difficult to determine its mode or genre, or even to summarize what it is about. When Welles was editing the film in Paris, critic and scholar Jonathan Rosenbaum asked him if it was a documentary, and the great director responded, “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film.” That is probably the most accurate description of F for Fake.

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The Reality Principle: Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Before the start of his heartbreaking rural romance True Heart Susie (1919), D.W. Griffith asks in an intertitle, “Is real life interesting?” He implies that the answer is yes, expecting that you’ll sit through the ninety minutes to follow based on its adherence to the facts of everyday life. But there is no expectation of documentary truth, since the star is Lillian Gish and and the writer of the story, Marian Fremont, are named front and center. Instead, Griffith said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual Art of the Real series, a wide-ranging survey of non-fiction (ish) cinema that runs through April 24th, is one that privileges the contemplative and dreamlike over works that only admit to one truth. Like Griffith’s work, the Art of the Real films (over twenty shorts and features), co-programmed by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim, think along with you, offering multifarious pathways to the “real”. The series will feature the North American premiere of the Lebanese portrait film Birds of September, Luo Li’s environmental doc/shaggy dog mystery Li Wen at East Lake and Luísa Homem & Pedro Pinho’s epic observational documentary of the Cape Verde tourist boom Trading Cities. Not to mention sidebars on The Actualities of Agnès Varda (with Varda introducing her films in person) and Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment, which takes the abused reenactment form and traces its storied history in documentary art.

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The most affecting work in the series, though, might be its simplest. Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze is a seventy-five minute interview with the ninety-year-old former kamikaze pilot Fujio Hayashi. Hayashi sits behind a table, his glasses traveling up and down his nose, as he dredges up the memories from his time in the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of the original volunteers for the air suicide attack units, he was, and remains, a good soldier. He lost his mother at a young age, and the few words he spares for his father depicts a neglectful, distant figure (after he returned from WWII, he said, “I’m back. I’m sorry for losing the war.” His father did not respond, and they barely spoke the rest of their lives). Hayashi poured his soul into the unit, and was willing and able to give up his life for his country. Instead he was tasked with training the young kamikaze recruits, ordering their missions, and hence, their deaths. Hayashi takes long, considered pauses before many of his answers, opening up blocks of time to study his face, his posture and his too-large suits. These are silences filled with thought, for Hayashi and the viewer. His expressions are almost entirely impenetrable and thus open to interpretation, a stonewall even when discussing his good friend Nishio, whom he had to order on a suicide mission. His military bearing is still intact, emotions attaching to the meaning of the words, but none in the inflection of his steady, phlegmy voice. Hayashi is comfortable with death, and has lived with it all his life. He keeps repeating that for long stretches of his life living or dying made no difference to him. He was, in this sense, the perfect kamikaze -though he was never able to achieve his intended destiny. He describes that period as “memories bathed in light”, and that when it is his turn to leave on his final mission, he will have a smile on his face, just as the kamikaze pilots did on theirs as they were heading out into oblivion.

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An Evening in the Company of Legends

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I didn’t realize how much I missed the Golden Age movie stars of the past—the legends I used to watch as a kid on the late show or the afternoon movie—until recently when I caught a couple of bio-documentaries by Joan Kramer and David Heeley. Even in the twilight of their years, performers like Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Henry Fonda lived up to their identities as bona fide movie stars who represented something more than glamorous faces on the big screen.

Tomorrow night, April 7, TCM airs a series of documentaries showcasing five of Hollywood’s iconic stars. The series was created by Kramer and Heeley, and the films were released in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still enough Golden Age stars to be interviewed. Kramer and Heeley have written a new book about their experiences in making these documentaries titled In the Company of Legends, and they will be on hand on Tuesday to introduce their work with Robert Osborne.

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15 Favorite Films From 2014

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I know what you’re thinking. Another list?! Forgive me my trespass but as a member of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists I’m asked to compile a list of my favorite films each year and I wanted to share some of my viewing highlights with you. These are the films that have been occupying my thoughts in recent weeks and many of them haven’t gotten the critical attention that I think they deserve. What follows is an alphabetical list of my 15 Favorite Films from 2014 along with some comments. I had hoped to write more about them all and why I find them worth recommending but I managed to sprain my hand last week, which has limited my typing abilities so some films only get a sentence or two. That said, I hope you’ll find some of my viewing suggestions worth investigating further.

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Chuck Workman Finds the Magic in Orson Welles

magicianposterMovie lovers will recognize Chuck Workman as the filmmaker responsible for Precious Images, the original name given to the short documentary that encapsulates the history of American film in eight minutes. Originally commissioned by the Directors Guild, the film is a compilation documentary consisting of brief shots from 470 classic movies. Precious Memories won an Oscar for Live Action Short and is listed on the National Registry of Films. Workman is also responsible for The First 100 Years, a similar compilation documentary produced to celebrate the 100th anniversary of projected motion pictures. Workman’s montage style in which he makes visual and thematic connections through clever editing is more complex than the pleasing surface of Precious Images suggests. The approach harkens back to the theories and practice of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Workman’s latest documentary on director Orson Welles also involves film history but in a different way.

At Sarasota’s Cine-World Film Festival, which closed last week, I caught Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. The great director makes for a timely topic considering next year is Welles’s 100th birthday. Given Workman’s skill and background in assembling clips, it is not surprising that the film contains well-organized snippets from archived interviews with Welles and some of his associates long since dead. There are also new interviews with former classmates, associates, and romantic companions.

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