Movies - Documentaries posts
Wednesday September 05, 2018
The Short, Unhappy Film Career of Dinesh D'Souza
You can fool some of the people some of the time, but eventually even fools stay away. Or maybe a better liar emerges who gives it away for free on Twitter.
Chronologically, for D‘Souza:
|7/13/12||2016 Obama’s America||RM||27%||$33,449,086|
|6/27/14||America: Imagine the World Without Her||LGF||8%||$14,444,502|
|7/15/16||Hillary's America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party||QF||4%||$13,099,931|
|8/3/18||Death of a Nation||QF||0%||$5,757,849|
Going down, down, down, down. $5.7 mil is nothing to sneeze at ... unless your docs previously earned six times that.
Is it that most people have figured out the con? Or is it that Trump is in the White House? I'm beginning to lean toward the latter. We seem to go to the movies not just to escape but to escape “the face of our sky,” as E.L. Doctorow put it in 1992 when referering to POTUS. With Obama in the White House, conservatives flocked to D‘Souza, “American Sniper,” “God’s Not Dead,” etc. Now those films make a fraction of what they did, while “Wonder Woman,” “Get Out,” “Black Panther” and the doc “RBG” ($13.9 and counting) rule during the Trump era. The movies are our counter-programming.
Tuesday February 28, 2017
'Five Came Back' Is Back as Documentary
Available on Netflix on March 31. I am so there:
The book is by Mark Harris. I did quite a few posts about it back in 2014.
Friday October 30, 2015
Q&A with Aviva Kempner on ‘Rosenwald,’ about the Jewish businessman who built more than 5,000 schools for African-Americans in the South
Julius Rosenwald was born in 1862, the son of an immigrant peddler, and rose to become part owner and president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, which he helped build into the largest retailer in the U.S. He was also a philanthropist. Along with various good works in Chicago, where he lived, he helped build more than 5,000 two-room schoolhouses in the South for African-Americans, which became known as “Rosenwald schools.” From 1917 to 1948, the Rosenwald Fund also made grants directly to African-American artists and researchers, including Langston Hughes, Jacob Lawrence, James Weldon Johnson, Augusta Savage, John Hope Franklin, Charles Drew, Gordon Parks, Jr., and James Baldwin. Rosenwald died in 1932.
Documentarian Aviva Kempner (“The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg,” “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg”) brings Rosenwald’s story to life in “Rosenwald,” which is playing this week at Sundance Cinemas in Seattle, with a special screening tonight, Friday, October 30, with Rosenwald’s grandson and biographer, Peter Ascoli, in attendance. There will be a Q&A with Mr. Ascoli after the 6:45 screening.
I spoke with Ms. Kempner on Monday.
After viewing your documentary, and hearing Julius Rosenwald’s story, I was amazed—and a little chagrined—that I’d never heard of him. How did you come across him?
I was lucky enough, 12 years ago, to attend a lecture by Julian Bond about blacks and Jews. I thought it was going to be about the Civil Rights era, but Julian surprised me by talking so eloquently about Julius Rosenwald and the schools, and how his own father and his uncle had gotten money from the Rosenwald fund. So I decided that had to be my next film.
It fit in with my M.O. about doing films about under-known Jewish heroes. I suspect he is the most under-known. It also fit ... In all my films, my protagonist is fighting an ism: Hank Greenberg was fighting anti-Semitism and Fascism, Molly Goldberg was fighting sexism and McCarthyism, and with this film, obviously, Rosenwald was fighting racism.
Early in the doc, one of your talking heads, Lester Mae Hill, who attended a Rosenwald school, asks, “What was his interest in doing this for the African-American community?”
Isn’t Lester wonderful? She was just so amazed, coming from the Jim Crow South, why a white man would want to do it.
I know your documentary is an extended answer to that question, but what’s the short answer?
I think we answered it several ways. Reading Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, [Rosenwald] realized what a profound problem there was in the South in terms of literally keeping African-Americans in the field and not affording them a good and equal education. Second, his Rabbi had taught him the tenets of Tikkun olam: “Repairing the world.” And I think growing up under the corner shadow of Abraham Lincoln’s home, he was inspired. He really operated on the philosophy, “Give while you live.”
So why do you think Rosenwald’s story, which is an amazing American story, is not better known?
I think it’s a combination of things. It was over 100 years ago; he was such a modest man; and it was in the South and the Midwest. So the people who went to the schools remember it, and people in Chicago certainly knew who he was. But I can’t tell you how many people ... Just the other day, someone in my audience said, “I grew up in Chicago: How did I not know this story?”
Exactly. In some ways he’s the bridge between Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.
Well, it’s interesting because some of this [archive] footage was shot by Charles Hamilton Houston. He was the mentor to Thurgood Marshall.
Did Rosenwald ever get criticized for helping educate black people?
Eugene Talmadge, the governor of Georgia, really called him out on it. That’ll probably be in the DVD. And I think burning down the schools is criticizing, don’t you?
When you began your research, what did you discover that surprised you most?
Going in, I thought it was just the schools. Then I heard about the fund. Even more surprising is the fact that so many of the young people who work for me, black and white, don’t know who Marian Anderson is, and how important her story is. I’ve had an older white woman at one of my screenings come up to me and say, “I learned more about African-American history watching this film than I ever learned in all the years at school, including college.”
Rosenwald also did a lot with Jewish charities in Chicago. Why not include more about that in the documentary?
Well, what can you do? I think that’s more what you would expect him to do, and I really wanted the film to be how he rose beyond what you would expect: How a successful Jewish businessman in a major, very northern city [helped African-Americans in the South]. And I had the people that were really affected by it.
I could do a whole other film of what isn’t in the film. He was also on the crime commission—this was the time of Al Capone. There was a horrible [race] riot in 1919 and he was on the commission to study that. He and the mayor of Chicago prevented Birth of a Nation from being shown in Chicago for a while.
In your documentaries, you do something I haven’t seen many other filmmakers do: You use feature-film footage to illustrate some part of the story that doesn’t have footage—as when Rosenwald’s father is peddling in Virginia in the 1850s and you show a clip of Gene Wilder in “The Frisco Kid.”
I think these scriptwriters oftentimes get it really right. It’s proven when [historian] Hasia Diner says, you know, “The peddler would sell to the immigrant, the African American, the Indian,” and I remembered an episode of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” and it was exactly in that order.
You also have Clint Eastwood in an old episode of “Rawhide” being taught the word “schlamazel” by a Jewish peddler. Nice find. Where did you get that?
The Paley Center for TV and Film. You just spend the time researching. Almost every cowboy series had a peddler. Probably because there were a lot of Jewish screenwriters.
There’s a great lesson for rich people today, too, particularly those running for office. [In the documentary Rosenwald says the following: “Don’t be fooled by believing that because a man is rich he is necessarily smart. There is ample proof to the contrary. Most large fortunes are made by men of mediocre ability, who fumbled into a lucky opportunity and couldn’t help but get rich.”]
Oh, I’d say it’s the best [antidote] to Trump’s line.
So which under-known Jewish hero is next?
Whoever I really can fall in love with. And I can get the money up front.
But who would be ideal?
I like the idea of [MLB catcher and OSS spy] Moe Berg. Go back to a little baseball.
Saturday March 28, 2015
The Eyes of Robert Durst
Too much has already been written about Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx,” the HBO documentary about Robert Durst, the scion of a New York real estate empire suspected of killing his first wife in New York after she went missing in January 1982; suspected of killing his friend and confidante in LA in December 2004; and charged with killing and dismemembering his neighbor in Galveston, TX in October 2001—for which Texas super lawyer Dick DeGuerin got him off (more or less) on a charge of (believe it or not) self-defense. Jarecki’s doc has led to Durst being arrested again, since, at the end, muttering to himself without knowing his microphone is still on, he seems to confess to the crimes. “Killed them all, of course,” he says, while lambasting himself for a poor performance before Jarecki’s cameras.
Among the many articles, I’m sure, are pieces on the ethics of dramatizations in documentaries, the ethics of Jarecki and company confronting Durst with incriminating handwriting evidence rather than going to the police, and the whole “did he/didn’t he” puzzle of it all. (Although I’m sure not many folks are falling on the “didn’t he” side by the end.)
What no one’s brought up? How much Durst’s eyes, with their creepy, overlarge pupils, look like the eyes of the villainnesses in the 1973 exploitation flick, “Invasion of the Bee Girls.” That’s why I’m here, I guess. You’re welcome.
B. Durst (top); Bee Girl (bottom).
Friday June 14, 2013
Trailer: The Salinger Documentary
This seems interesting but so far none of it is exactly news. I knew Salinger quit publishing in 1965, I knew he'd been in World War II and suffered a nervous breakdown, I knew The Catcher in the Rye had a huge affect on generations of kids, including me. I also have my own theories about why Salinger stopped publishing. But I'll still be there opening weekend. September.
Monday May 27, 2013
What's Up with the IMDb Rating of the WikiLeaks Documentary 'We Steal Secrets'?
I never rate movies on Netflix or IMDb or anywhere else. I think it's pointless—it's just a number—but more importantly I don't want to give away that shit for free. Instead I write about it in detail and give it away for free here. Which has the advantage of being here.
But last week on IMDb I rated Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks.” Why? This is why. It’s a screenshot of the doc’s IMDb page from last week. What’s wrong with this picture?
The doc has a 4.3 rating. How bad is 4.3 in the IMDb universe? “Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance” has a 4.4 rating.
Is “We Steal Secrets” that bad? Not nearly. In my movie-reviewing days at The Seattle Times, I would’ve given it four out of four stars. I keep recommending to people. I recommend it to you now. Here's my review.
So why the low rating? I assume WikiLeaks' supporters are voting early and often against the doc without having seen it. The doc has the temerity to take a nuanced approach to Julian Assange. It suggests that what began with a demand for openness has become a closed society. It tells a tragic tale. The IMDb rating may be part of that tragic tale. What better way to suppress information than to imply it's no good?
A few days ago, out of the blue, I received this odd tweet:
I checked out the links above but couldn't get past the defensiveness. One of the first complaints: “The premiere of 'We Steal Secrets' is opportunistically timed” — I.e., near the Bradley Manning trial. Right. Because distribution companies usually try to open their films unopportunistically. They never take advantage of, say, the holidays or summer vacation.
This line is worse: “The film portrays Manning’s alleged acts as failure of character rather than a triumph of conscience.” Not my read at all. If the doc has sympathy for any of its three main players—Manning, Assange, and Adrian Lamo—it's for Manning. From my review last week:
But it wasn’t until Pvt. Bradley Manning, a nice, fucked-up kid from Oklahoma, who was stationed in Iraq and wondered what to do about the confidential—and to him, immoral—information he had access to, that we all knew Assange’s name.
If WikiLeaks has serious complaints about Alex Gibney's doc, then it needs to focus on them. But focus has never been WikiLeaks' strong suit. They've always been about TMI.
This was the IMDb page of “We Steal Secrets” this morning:
Don't believe the negative hype.
Sunday January 13, 2013
The Original Gangster Squad
This weekend, as “Gangster Squad” was opening to poor reviews and poorer box office, I watched a documentary called “Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film.” I'd never heard of it but there it was on Netflix. For, like, free. Narrated by Alec Baldwin. You worry you're going to wind up with some AMC Biography crap but this thing was decent.
It is what it says it is. Its focus is on the 1930s Warner Bros. gangsters: Robinson and Cagney in the 1930s, then Bogart's work from the 1940s. It includes Martin Scorsese as talking head and some of his films. But it never mentions “The Godfather,” at least not so as I remembered, and pretty much ignores the 1950s on. It ends more or less with Cody Jarett. Top of the world, ma.
But the best part of the doc for me was the first 20 minutes when we got clips from silent gangster movies. Not just “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1913), which Scorsese talked up in “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American movies,” but a 1906 silent film called “The Black Hand.” Any “Godfather” fan immediately perks up. “The Black Hand” at the time of Vito Corleone's battle with the Black Hand? Sign me up.
Turns out it's one of about a half-dozen silents with “black hand” in the title. We don't get the others. But we do get these:
Some of “Regeneration” was apparently filmed in Five Points, only 50 years removed from when Martin Scorses would set it in “Gangs of New York.” He watched it as preparation.
There's also a great, short appreciation for Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, who projects powerful ones here. It makes me want to see more of his work.
Why did gangster movies prosper with talkies? Some say it was the sounds, such as machine guns, but you could get those in war movies, too. Others mention the patois, the accents, from the various neighborhoods in New York. Wise guy, see? There's Prohibition, during which most of us became criminals and criminals became powerful, and the Great Depression, when many Americans realized what a scam it all was, and a man making his rise by any means necessary, and in the face of the real criminals, the Wall Street types, was a comforting 90-minute wish-fulfillment fantasy for many Americans.
Plus the movie stars who showed up: Cagney, Bogart, Edward G. Robinson:
By the way, and appropos of nothing, doesn't this actor in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” remind you of Mark Strong?
History written with lightning has simply become history. The backgrounds alone in these early silents, filmed in various locations in New York in the 1910s, make them worth watching.
Wednesday December 05, 2012
Idiot of the Day: Dinesh D’Souza
“I want to thank the Academy for not nominating our film. By ignoring ’2016,’ the top-performing box-office hit of 2012, and pretending that films like ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and ‘This Is Not a Film’ are more deserving of an Oscar, our friends in Hollywood have removed any doubt average Americans may have had that liberal political ideology, not excellence, is the true standard of what receives awards.”
-- Dinesh D’Souza, writer and director, with John Sullivan, of the documentary “2016: Obama's America.”
A few pointers, Dinesh:
- The Academy isn't about box office. Since 2000, how many No. 1 box-office hits have been nominated best picture? Three: “Return of the King” in 2003, “Avatar” in 2009, and “Toy Story 3” in 2010. How many won? One. “Return of the King.” This is true in the documentary-feature category as well. The No. 1 doc last year? Justin Bieber's concert film. Not nominated. In 2010? “Oceans.” Nada. In 2009 it was “Earth,” and in 2008 “Religulous.” Bupkis. The last No. 1 box-office doc to get nom'ed was Michael Moore's “Sicko” in 2007 but it lost the award to Alex Gibney's “Taxi to the Dark Side.” Which barely made any money at the box office.
- The Academy has never really been about excellence, either. Or to put another way: Excellence is in the eye of the beholder. In this list from Sasha Stone on the best pictures chosen by the Academy's and the New York Film Critics Circle, there aren't many years, when the two bodies disagree, when I wouldn't rather watch the NYFCC's choice. Those films are more excellent to me. Which doesn't mean that members of the Academy don't strive for excellence. It's just that other things get in the way.
- But if you're looking for a way to quantify quality, or excellence, then the Rotten Tomatoes site isn't a bad place to go. And the top critics there gave “Searching for Sugar Man” a 97% rating, and “This is Not a Film” a 100% rating. Your film? 14%. “The film flutters to the ground like so much GOP convention confetti,” writes critic Roger Moore of McClatchy-Tribune News Service; “all assertions, few facts and little substance other than the conspiratorial right wing talking points that are D'Souza's bread and butter.”
- Which is pretty much the consenus of your film. It sucks. The fact that you seem to have expected a nomination, and have attributed the lack of to liberal Hollywood bias, indicates how far gone you are. It's like expecting a documentary about 9/11 truthers to be short-listed for an Oscar.
Here are the 15 docs that did make the Academy's short list:
- “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” Never Sorry LLC
- “Bully,” The Bully Project LLC
- “Chasing Ice,” Exposure
- “Detropia,” Loki Films
- “Ethel,” Moxie Firecracker Films
- “5 Broken Cameras,” Guy DVD Films
- “The Gatekeepers,” Les Films du Poisson, Dror Moreh Productions, Cinephil
- “The House I Live In,” Charlotte Street Films, LLC
- “How to Survive a Plague,” How to Survive a Plague LLC
- “The Imposter,” Imposter Pictures Ltd.
- “The Invisible War,” Chain Camera Pictures
- “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” Jigsaw Productions in association with Wider Film Projects and Below the Radar Films
- “Searching for Sugar Man,” Red Box Films
- “This Is Not a Film,” Wide Management
- “The Waiting Room,” Open’hood, Inc.
Friday November 04, 2011
The Bravest Man of the 20th Century?
Rustin was the civil rights movement before the civil rights movement. He was advocating a non-violent confrontational approach in the 1940s, more than a decade before the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville. He was engaged in freedom rides more than a decade before “the Freedom Rides” of 1961. He also organized a little thing called the March on Washington in August 1963.
So why isn't he better known? Look at the Times' obit. The piece is 41 paragraphs but this isn't mentioned until the 40th paragraph:
In an interview published in The Village Voice on June 30, Mr. Rustin was quoted as saying he was homosexual. Asked in the interview how this and his 1953 arrest and subsequent sentence of 60 days in Pasadena, Calif., on a morals charge had affected his civil rights work, he said that '‘there was considerable prejudice amongst a number of people I worked with,’' although they would not admit it.
Born in 1912, Rustin was both black and openly gay, and his homosexuality was used against him several times during the civil right movement. It marginalized him—an early, dynamic leader—and yet, even with this marginalization, he still did what he did.
I'm curious: Did Rustin ever meet up with James Baldwin, who was both black and openly gay? What was that meeting like? Could someone write a play about it?
“Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin” isn't a great doc, but its subject, Rustin, is a great subject. Someday someone will get it right.
Rustin, with glasses, behind Martin Luther King during the “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, King wasn't always behind Rustin.
Thursday July 14, 2011
Bye-Bye Tabloid; Hello “Tabloid”
Errol Morris is one lucky bastard. His most recent documentary, “Tabloid,” played the Seattle Interntional Film Festival last month. Here's its synopsis:
Morris’ latest mind-boggling study of boundless obsession takes as its jumping-off point the notorious 1978 kidnapping in the U.K. of a Mormon missionary by former Wyoming beauty queen Joyce Kinney. The lurid details made headlines across the world and turned her into a one-woman media circus. ... Moving beyond the sick, sad, and smirk-inducing aspects of the film, director Morris makes some serious points about the power of the yellow press to shape and destroy lives ...
“Headlines all over the world?” I remember thinking. “I was around in the 1970s. I like stories about sex. How come I don't remember it?”
Then I saw the film and realized, “Ohhh, because it happened in England, with the British tabloid press. Yeah. No wonder I didn't know about it.”
Then I thought, “Too bad for Morris. Probably no market for it. Americans just aren't as interested in British tabloid stuff.”
The doc opens in limited release in the U.S. tomorrow.
Wednesday April 20, 2011
Tim Hetherington, Co-Director of Restrepo, Dies in Libya
I just heard the news about Tim Hetherington.
A year ago I saw him at the Harvard Exit in Seattle, tall and thin and British, a photojournalist mostly, standing next to Sebastian Junger, short and broad and American, an author mostly, and his co-director on the documentary we'd all just watched: “Restrepo.” Both calmly answered questions from the partisan Seattle International Film Festival crowd about the politics of war and the politics of documentary. A few in the crowd, like Jeff Wells later, wanted “Restrepo” to be more political: the how and the why we're in Afghanistan. They felt “Restrepo” somehow lacked. I was stunned. I was stunned by the stupidity of the questions and by the power of the film. I've urged it on everyone since. I doubt there's a movie I mentioned more in the last year. I was a broken record.
- I posted my “Restrepo” review at the end of May 2010.
- From early June: Me, I've only been seeing SIFF (Seattle International Film Festival) movies the past two weeks. Thus far? “Restrepo.” Repeat: “Restrepo.”
- In late June, I talked about how it was the best of SIFF.
- Still in June, in a lengthy post, I slammed Jeff Wells for his take on “Restrepo,” and, in the process, sharpened my own.
- In early July: a link to a New York Times Q&A with Junger.
- From August: There are still good movies to see, people. Restrepo is still playing in 44 theaters, and two new docs, “The Tillman Story” and “A Film Unfinished,” just opened in NY and LA. One hopes they go wider.
- From September: Have you seen 'Restrepo'? DO! It's playing in 37 theaters around the U.S., has grossed $1.2 million, and is one of the best movies of the year.
- From October: Somebody, in this case “The Independent,” likes “Restrepo,” the Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington documentary about a platoon in Afghanistan in 2007-08, as much as I did. Hell, they go further. They ask: Is it the greatest war movie ever made?
- From January 2011: Michael Cieply writes of the strong slate of documentaries in 2010 without once mentioning the best of the lot: “Restrepo.”
- More from January: The Producers Guild of America announces its 2010 nominees. Six documentaries and no “Restrepo.” The world gets dumber by the day.
- Even more from January: I celebrated “Restrepo”'s Oscar nomination.
- In February, I finally get around to posting my list of the top 10 movies of 2010. “Restrepo”? No. 2.
- From Live-blogging the Oscars: The main one I want to win apparently has no shot: “Restrepo.” Maybe someday people will know.
Maybe someday they will.
Rest in peace, Mr. Hetherington. Emphasis on peace.
Junger, left, and Hetherington during the filming of “Restrepo”
Saturday December 04, 2010
The PGA Got It Wrong
The Producers Guild of America released their short list for best documentary feature yesterday. Thus:
- CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER
- EARTH MADE OF GLASS
- INSIDE JOB
- SMASH HIS CAMERA
- THE TILLMAN STORY
- WAITING FOR ‘SUPERMAN’
Hopefully the Academy won't make the same mistake.