This wasn’t the best year for Oscar-nommed feature-length docs. I saw several terrific films at the Chicago Film Fest that didn’t even make the short list of fifteen. But they weren’t the only docs of 2017 worth watching by a longshot! So, as I’ve already reviewed those Fest features, here are eight more offerings either ignored by the Academy or that have recently been released. Not all are great, but there will be something about at least one or two that will be up your alley…
“Chasing Coral” (Netflix)
Directed by Jeff Orlowski
Orlowski’s companion piece to “Chasing Ice” is part of a sad genre that didn’t exist even ten years ago: “The-World-Is-Coming-To-An-End-And-Man’s-Hubris-Is-To-Blame” documentary species. There are now dozens of these and they litter (see what I did there?) the Netflixosphere. How is one to know which ones are worth watching and which ones aren’t? Well, they’re ALL worth watching…or, rather, they’re all important enough to watch…since they document what’s really happening around us. However, with so many to choose from, what must the criteria be to whittle it down a bit? A story…a beginning, middle and end for starters. And, while the SUBJECT of “Chasing Coral” is very compelling, the story just isn’t. After that, it must be the astonishing photography. What made “Chasing Ice” so hypnotic was the SCALE by which we could actually see the calving and melting of Texas-sized chunks of ice. In this instance, the colors…and subsequent lack thereof, are terrifying! But there is only so much that can be viewed under water…so…alas, a less powerful visual enticement.
I’m NOT saying you shouldn’t watch this film. You should! And I’m not saying the subject is any less important than that of “Chasing Ice”. This IS VERY important stuff. But if you are as exhausted by the constant barrage of bad news about our planet as I am, then fatigue has a way of creeping in when it comes to viewing these sorts of docs…that is unless there is something that makes you go, “HOLY CRAP!”. Alas, I didn’t find that moment in this film once the issue was described.
“Dawson City: Frozen Time” (FilmStruck)
Directed by Bill Morrison
This film is just sensational documentary film making. A treasure trove of silent-film nitrate reels were found buried in a construction site in Dawson City, the original Gold Rush town high up in the Yukons. That would be an interesting story by itself even if the film was produced in a typical history doc manner…talking heads, some footage, etc. But Morrison takes the “silent movie” aspect of the story to heart. Thus the entire film is told using restored or repaired bits of these found films, photographs, title cards and silent film-era movies that center on the Gold Rush of the time. The result is a combination of “Cinema Paradiso” apex and dream-like travelogue of a time both gone by, and for the vast majority of human beings, never was.
To be sure, this is a slightly sleepy film, but not in its story telling or imagery. It is sleepy because it is hypnotic…it draws you in. It makes you wonder and imagine about the people who set out to make a life in that remote land with no guarantee of anything other than hope….about the ghost-like presence of the actors in these ancient films…and about the men and women who first unspooled these reels and how strange it must have felt to behold such an important modern archaeological find…a find that is emotive, NOT static. All of which is aided by Alex Somers ethereal and gorgeous score.
For those of you who like uber-creative ways to manipulate the doc format…this is a no-brainer. It was one of my very favorite films of last year. It’s masterful and should have been recognized as such by the Academy.
“Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami” (In theaters now)
Directed by Sophie Fiennes
I love Grace Jones. Have ever since I heard her version of “Warm Leatherette” back in the early eighties. And 1985’s “Slave To the Rhythm” is one of my favorite albums…maybe ever. If anyone is deserving of a kick-ass documentary, a real original, critical, and life-spanning film, it’s her.
Alas, this ain’t it. Not by a long shot. This film is shot fly-on-the-wall style as we see Ms. Jones work on a new record while visiting her family home in Jamaica. Here she is at dinner. Here she is at her hotel. Here she is backstage. It’s a lot of “here she is”, but only about ten to fifteen minutes of these bits amount to anything remotely revealing. Mostly she comes across as exactly what we already know about her…she’s a diva. While this is a status well-earned, breaking through, as she did, in a New York rock/dance/art scene almost solely by sheer force in the late seventies, the film exists without any sense of that discovery. Hence we are left to wonder how much of what we see is what she ALLOWS us to see. It wouldn’t be at all surprising if she had final cut power over Ms. Fiennes.
FORTUNATELY, there are some live performance clips of her most recent tour…and let’s just say NO ONE has style like Grace. But in the end, this just doesn’t do the creativity, outlandishness, energy and power of the artist any justice.
“Hitler’s Hollywood” (In theaters now)
Directed by Rudiger Suchsland
Granted, this film is pretty much made for cinephiles and history buffs, examining in detail, as it does, the German film industry during the years the Third Reich reigned. This was a time when HUNDREDS of Hollywood-quality films were produced…all under the watchful eyes and control of Joseph Goebbels. As a result, ALL of the films either extoll the virtues of racial purity, illustrate the importance of serving the state, or, most often, cast constant doubt and indignation on the other (the “other” being the mentally ill, gypsies, Russians and, most frequently, Jews). Sounds incredibly intriguing, yes?
Alas, it’s told with all the academic minutiae of a sophomore level film class. Seeing the imagery is its own reward, I suppose, but the director jump-cuts so quickly between films, sometimes four times in mid-sentence, you never get the chance to catch your breath. The film is narrated by the sublime German character actor Udo Kier. Here’s the problem. His voice is extremely deep in town…mellifluous even, and his accent, when speaking English, is quite thick. As a result, when he speaks the name of German actors or film titles, it’s hard to catch when he has switched back to English. By the time your brain catches up, you’ve missed a huge swath of information. So, if you DO screen this film, make sure to have the subtitles on for everything, not just the film clips.
Wanted this to be amazing…ah well.
“Kedi” (YouTube RED)
Directed by Ceyda Torun
“It was better than Cats!”
Well, it IS cats. Equal parts wildlife film and human psychological examination, “Kedi” is pretty wonderful. Director Torun has focused his lens on seven felines who are part of the thousands of undomesticated street cats who flood the inner city of Istanbul…and the humans they coexist with. The cats are highly individuated which makes the film sing, and the humans are able to speak eloquently their connections to one or the other. It acts as the best telling yet of the difference between dogs and cats that I’ve seen. In essence, dogs have evolved to a place of subjugation…pleasing us – doing our bidding – so as to be given warmth, shelter and sustenance. House cats (even wild ones), on the other hand, manipulate and cajole while remaining HIGHLY independent…knowing they can turn it on whenever they want to get what they want. And through the use of close quarter camerawork every bit as amazing as “Winged Migration,” this theme is confirmed over and over. A lovely film told well and shot uniquely. How it wasn’t nominated over some of the other docs this past year is beyond me.
The nominating committee must have all been dog people.
“Obit” (Amazon Prime)
Directed by Vanessa Gould
For years I’ve heard from journalists and writers that the REAL artisans are in the obituary department. Inside of 24-48 hours they must boil the essence of a person’s life accomplishments, failures, successes, personality and standing in the community down to 500-1500 words by doing painting a picture with words, not merely recreating a C.V.. Gould’s “Obit” takes us inside the New York Times for a close examination of both the process. and the people who are tasked with that process, in an intriguing, dense, and often stunning ninety minutes. In other words, it is not in the least bit morose or macabre. It is often funny, always fascinating and, ultimately, respectful. Using nothing more than interviews with the writers, researchers and one over-worked archivist (and an occasional title card), nothing gets in the way of the appreciation and awe we feel toward these ghost-whisperers. And since much of the joy of the film is learning about the strange idiosyncrasies and vagaries of the gig, there’s not much more for me to say, other than it’s worth your time. Maybe more than that. More serious than the terrific examination of the New Yorker cartoonist, the terrific “Very Semi-Serious”, it, nonetheless, will tickle the curiosity of anyone who has ever spent a Sunday morning reading the New York Times. Hmm…I realize that since that group probably includes no one under the age of forty-five in its ranks, let me just add that you Gen Y’ers and Millenials will probably enjoy it as well! It has its issues but not nearly enough to keep you from watching if you are at all curious about how research, journalism and creativity co-minlge in the authoring good non-fiction.
“Score: A Film Music Documentary” (Hulu)
Directed by Oren Jacoby
While we’re on the subject of niche documentaries, “Score” does almost the exact same thing as “Obit”. Takes a very specific creative element and examines the process and most successful craftsman within that element. Ever so slightly more academic than “Obit” (which is not a slight), it is fascinating stuff…especially if you love film (and if you’re reading this… uh…). From initial thought process, through storyboarding, scoring, recording and editing, we see how it all fits in to the overall production of a film…most of it fascinating, all of it illuminating. Jacoby’s film also successfully examines the emotional and physiological connection we have to movie music…the why of our only needing to hear a film theme and reconnect with our emotions of the original experience. All while SIMULTANEOUSLY (and seamlessly) interweaving a chronological history of the master composers who did the most to change movie music in different eras of the last century (Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Alfred Newman, Max Steiner, etc). It really is a masterful example of documentary editing, as the film queries dozens of working composers in varying degrees of notoriety (tv and film) whilst never staying on them for more than a sentence or two at a time. As a result, it moves fast with a sense beginning, middle and end. In other words, there’s pretty much something for everyone…at least the “everyones” who love film. Oh, and to watch Bear McReary play his “Black Sails” theme (my phone’s ringtone of the last five years) on a hurdy-gurdy was a bit of heaven.
I need to add that at the theater where I screened this film, the audio went out halfway through. I kid you not. Ever so slightly more ironic than a fly in my chardonnay, no?
“Shadowman” (Amazon Prime)
Directed by Oren Jacoby
In the vein of 2013’s Oscar-winning “Searching For Sugar Man,” “Shadowman” seeks to exult, find, and fill in the gaps of the last three and a half decades in the life of one of the seventies’ and eighties’ great street artists, Richard Hambleton. A contemporary of Basquiat and Keith Haring (in time, talent and status), Hambleton disappeared soon after gaining his substantial notoriety as the eighties waned. The film’s “plot” revolves around Hambleton’s attempts to have a new showing of his work, but uses that device only as a way to understand how different his life is from those two giants…effectively looking at the business of art and how staying alive or dying affects one’s reputations.
Jacoby smartly uses the camera as a cast member, since Hambleton can’t help but play to it, which is what gives the film its juice, to be sure. He is one interesting dude. Alas, as this is not the happiest of stories, there is, perhaps, a little too much time focused on Mr. Hambleton’s ghosts, addictions, physical sufferings and fears. Not that this aspect of his life isn’t both fascinating and important…it just causes a bit of fatigue for the viewer, eventually.
Nonetheless, this is a terrific doc about a man you root for, who made some of the scariest street art ever. And as a kid who took the Long Island Rail Road to the East Village, Alphabet City or the shit-hole that was Times Square in the NYC in the punk rock heyday of ’79-84, his “shadowmen” regularly scared the crap out of me, so I should probably add that I might have more of a connection to the subject than you. Nonetheless, this is a doc worth watching.
So now you have some stuff to watch in the hot desert-like void that is the summer television hiatus. Enjoy!
Written on 6/11/2018