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DOC NYC Festival
IFC Center/SVA Theater/Cinepolis Cinema, New York, NY
November 8-15, 2018
Now in its ninth year, the documentary festival DOC NYC—which this year comprises 135 features, among many other screenings and events—opened with John Chester’s The Biggest Little Farm and closes with the world premiere of Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, about two of the seminal NYC newspaper columnists.
The Ghost of Peter Sellers
I caught a dozen films that range from contemporary politics to artist profiles, including The Ghost of Peter Sellers, director Peter Medak’s account of the ill-fated movie he made with the great comic actor in 1973—after Medak was flying high with The Ruling Class and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg—a pirate adventure called Ghost in the Noonday Sun, in which everything that could go wrong did. The biggest problem was the mercurial Sellers himself, who had never enjoyed the best on-set reputation, and Medak digs through memories as he reminisces with others around back then to assuage his own feelings that, decades later, he still feels responsible for this disaster. It’s a weirdly funny and fascinating on-set journey.
In The Artist and the Pervert, Beatrice Behn and Ren̩é Gebhardt chronicle the fascinating love (and kinky sex) story of an eye-opening couple: Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas—whose parents were Nazi sympathizers—and African-American performance artist Mollena Williams. The film’s title raises a pertinent question: which is which?
The Greenaway Alphabet
The Greenaway Alphabet, a personal look at British filmmaker Peter Greenaway by his artistic and life partner Saskia Boddeke, could also have been called The Artist and the Pervert, as anyone who’s seen Greenaway’s visually and thematically complex films can attest. But Boddeke and their teenage daughter Pip actually bring some humanity to Greenaway, especially when he and his daughter discuss autism when they go through the A’s.
Today’s right-wing extremists—and those gung-ho in their youth but who left the movement, for various reasons—are the subjects of Exit, an engrossing study by director (and former hate-group member) Karen Winther.
Under the Wire
The dangerous conditions under which war correspondents toil are explored in Chris Martin’s shattering Under the Wire, a tribute to and eulogy for (among others) U.S. journalist Marie Colvin, who died covering the civil war in Syria.
Katrine Philp’s False Confessions eye-openingly shows how many people are trying to remedy an intolerable situation: notably defense attorney Jane Fisher-Byrialsen, who goes to Amherst, an affluent Buffalo suburb, to look into the case of Renay Lynch, behind bars for more than 20 years for a 1995 murder she did not commit. Under the microscope are coercive police interrogations, which Philp and Fisher-Byrialsen shine a necessary light on.
Maxine Trump (no relation, I hope!) describes her life without children in To Kid or Not to Kid, an evenhanded documentary about how women—whether by choice or by chance—deal with their childless lives and the shaming that still takes place, whether by well-meaning family members and strangers or anonymous people on social media.
Patrimonio, set in Baja, Mexico—near vacation paradise Los Cabos—is a David vs. Goliath story of village fishermen going against a rich developer that wants to take over their local lands and waters, shown by directors Sarah Teale and Lisa F. Jackson as a possibly optimistic result.
Decade of Fire
Vivian Vazquez and Gretchen Hildebran’s emotional Decade of Fire looks past the conventional thinking about the “Bronx is burning” 1970s and uncovers that not only were its inhabitants—primarily blacks and Latinos—painted with a broadly racist brush, but they were also the catalysts for the completely trashed area’s later revitalization.
Another monstrous corporation is given the once-over in Inside Lehman Brothers, Jennifer Deschamps’ feature that trods familiar ground—did the bigwigs from the big banks get away with high crimes after the 2008 financial meltdown?—but remains an enraging cautionary tale.
Our own inadequate medical system is given a merciless treatment in The Providers, Anna Moot-Levin and Laura Green’s clear-eyed but encouraging look at a collapsed community in New Mexico cared for by a few health-care providers who help a financially vulnerable population deal with the widespread opioid crisis.
Finally, another world premiere, Barbara Kopple’s New Homeland, is also extremely relevant to our tRumped-up world, sympathetically following Middle Eastern families given refugee status that are welcomed to Canada by their local sponsors. The difficulties of one of the teenage boys to assimilate into his new society is heartrending, but there are also feel-good successes that make any viewer hopeful about our shared future.
Blu-rays of the Week
John & Yoko: Imagine/Gimme Some Truth
Accompanying the massive new boxed set celebrating John Lennon’s seminal Imagine album (1971), this release contains John and Yoko’s film Imagine, which intersperses performances like the classic white-piano version of the title song with footage of the couple in New York and London, joining protests and frolicking on the beach. It’s a mixture of self-parody and self-indulgence that’s at times dated but still provides a valuable insight into Lennon as an artist, along with his famous friends like Jack Palance, Dick Cavett and Fred Astaire.
Also included is Gimme Some Truth, an insightful hour-long documentary of the making of the Imagine album, with glimpses of producer Phil Spector and former Beatle George Harrison in the studio with John. Both films have been painstakingly restored in hi-def, and look (ad sound) as good as possible; extras are studio outtakes of the songs “Imagine,” “How?” and “Gimme Some Truth,” and a glimpse at a David Bailey photo shoot.
In Michael Crichton’s 1981 futuristic thriller, early computer-generated effects play a big role in this convoluted story of a plastic surgeon looking into the murders of the beautiful models who were his patients: although Albert Finney, James Coburn, Susan Dey and Leigh Taylor-Young look embarrassed at times speaking the borderline risible dialogue, there’s a certain prescience in Crichton’s cautionary tale of malevolent technology.
The film has an adequate hi-def transfer; extras are writer-director Crichton’s intro and commentary and an eight-minute sequence added to the network television version.
Queen of Outer Space
This 1958 campfest, shot on the sets of other sci-fi movies of its era like Forbidden Planet and World Without End, follows its male astronauts to Venus, which is exclusively populated by females, but since this is a 1958 campfest not much happens except for some wink wink nudge nudging and innocent embraces and kisses.
Among the women are Zsa Zsa Gabor and Laurie Mitchell, who plays the masked queen of Venus hiding her deformed face; the men are much less interesting. There’s a solid hi-def transfer and a commentary featuring Mitchell.
Vincent Lindon has made his name playing ordinary people living quotidian lives, but he gets his teeth into the larger-than-life figure of French sculptor Auguste Rodin in Jacques Doillon’s warts-and-all biopic that concentrates on his volatile relationship with fellow sculptor (and protégé) Camille Claudel—played with equal intensity by French pop singer Izïa Higelin.
Doillon, like fellow Frenchman Maurice Pialat in Van Gogh, strips the master’s life story to its essentials, mostly eschewing music and melodrama to create this engrossing portrait of the artist. The hi-def transfer is exceptional; lone extra is a 30-minute making-of.
When disaster-movie maven Irwin Allen made this hokey thriller in 1978, killer bees were all the rage, so there was a scientific basis to the premise, but the script is chockful of holes, there are many howlers in the dialogue and the clichéd characters are lazily embodied by an all-star cast of Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Katharine Ross, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Richard Chamberlain and, in a bizarre scene, Slim Pickens.
A few bee-killing scenes are effective, but at 2-1/2 hours—more than 30 minutes was added to the original theatrical release—The Swarm simply goes on and on and on. The hi-def transfer is excellent.
DVD of the Week
Mister Rogers—It’s You I Like
This lovely valentine to Fred Rogers, whose decency and goodness shone on his beloved children’s show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, is an OK overview of his legacy and how much he affected people, families, children and adults.
Host Michael Keaton guides us through interviews with celebrities and people associated with the show, and clips of Rogers on the show remind us how slyly subversive this conservative Republican was on our TV screens for decades. This PBS program can be seen as an adjunct to the feature documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, which covers the same material. Extras are an additional 30 minutes of footage.
CD of the Week
Gerald Finzi—Cello Concerto and Piano Works
British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) finished writing his dramatic and sweeping Cello Concerto about a year before his untimely death of Hodgkin’s at age 55—the concerto actually had its premiere the night before he died. The first movement’s storminess no doubt alludes to his disease, the quieter middle movement is a loving portrait of the composer’s wife and the upbeat finale makes for a most satisfying resolution. Cellist Paul Watkins plays the solo part with thrilling artistry, and Andrew Davis and the BBC Symphony Orchestra provide notable accompaniment.
This superb disc is rounded out by two attractive piano and orchestra works, Eclogue and Grand Fantasia and Toccata—with Louis Lortie impressively handling the solo parts—and the moody orchestral work, Nocturne (New Year Music).
Dietrich and von Sternberg in Hollywood
One of the Criterion Collection’s best recent boxed sets is this six-disc journey through the groundbreaking films made by director Josef von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich in the 1930s, including such classics as Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express. Dietrich’s persona—aloof but endlessly fascinating—was cemented through these pictures, and von Sternberg provided the most elegant vehicles for her talent.
The new hi-def transfers of these 80-plus-year-old B&W films are nothing short of astonishing; many extras include new and archival featurettes and interviews.
Jonas Carpignano’s second feature, set amid Roma families in southern Italy, is an arresting, quasi-documentary look at a teenage boy whose close-knit family is shaken up when dad and older brother are taken in by the police. Our young protagonist discovers that being head of the household is not as easy as it looks.
With a non-professional cast (including several members of the same family), there’s a certain roughness in parts, but the authenticity of these people and their home are delicately wrought. There’s a fine hi-def transfer; extras include a 50-minute making-of documentary; Cannes featurette; deleted scenes; and Carpignano’s original A Ciambra short.
This star-studded 2011 production of the Mozart classic—with Peter Mattei as the Don, Bryn Terfel as his servant Leporello, and veterans Barbara Frittoli and Anna Netrebko and young Anna Prohaska as the women in his life—is complemented by Daniel Barenboim conducting the La Scala orchestra for three hours of operatic bliss.
Director Robert Carsen smartly keeps his powerhouse cast front and center; first-rate hi-def video and audio completes the picture.
Endeavour—Complete 5th Season
Wherein recently promoted Endeavour Morse, his worldlier partner Thursday and new recruit Fancy solve more crimes, including murder in a movie house and the theft of a valuable Fabergé egg.
The six self-contained episodes make up several hours of sheer entertainment, made most palatable by the performances of Shaun Evans, Roger Allam and newcomer Lewis Peek, all of whom enjoying good chemistry. The British countryside looks great on Blu.
DVDs of the Week
Rosario Dawson is a knockout as the title character, a male fantasy of a damaged single mom: a former stripper, hooker and addict who turns grown men into putty and a young man, barely older than her son, into a reasonable facsimile of an adult.
William Macy directs Will Aldis’s threadbare script with over-insistent whimsy, which turns rom-com material into leaden melodrama; the rest of the cast—Nick Robinson, Felicity Huffman, Macy himself, Kathy Bates, and William Fichtner—has its moments but too much of Krystal is cringeworthy as it attempts being sentimental and offbeat simultaneously, like Macy’s Showtime series Shameless.
Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In—Complete 5th Season
This latest release collects all 24 episodes from the penultimate 1971-72 season of the comedy-variety show hosted by Dick Rowan and Dan Martin, the perfect ringmasters for a loony stew of goofy jokes and skits, with musical interludes and political satire making appearances as well.
The first episode features the only time then “world’s biggest sex symbol” Raquel Welch came on the show; there’s also the usual motley crew of regulars (Ruth Buzzi, Richard Dawson, Gary Owens, Lily Tomlin) and other guest stars like Hugh Hefner, Gene Hackman, Carroll O’Connor and Rita Hayworth that help celebrate a milestone like the series’ 100th episode.
This clumsily executed 1957 musical comprising Cole Porter’s beguiling tunes recounts the friction among the partners in a famous cabaret act, with Gene Kelly doing his usual razzle-dazzle alongside his main ladies Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg, who all are worthy of the praise Porter showers on them.
Too bad George Cukor’s curiously flatfooted direction keeps this from taking off like the best movie musicals of its era do. The colorful widescreen compositions look excitingly alive in hi-def; extras are an archival featurette hosted by Elg and a vintage cartoon.
In Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri’s volatile Beirut-set feature, hurled insults between a local and a Palestinian laborer spiral into a national case that is judged in the media and the courtroom. Doueiri’s taut story raises the stakes between the two men at first, but then becomes more strident and contrived, so much so that its power is diminished.
Still, Doueiri’s formidably authentic actors lend the film the gravitas it needs. There’s a superb hi-def transfer; lone extra is an informative 33-minute interview in which Doueiri discusses (in English) his film’s genesis.
Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame In Concert
This invaluable two-disc set for music fans collects the most recent quartet of Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies: 2014, 2016 and 2017 in Brooklyn and 2015 in Cleveland.
Not surprisingly, the highlights are many: 2014 features the remaining members of Nirvana with singers Joan Jett, Kim Gordon, Annie Clark and Lorde; 2015 brings a Ringo and Paul reunion for Starr’s belated solo induction; 2016 finally admits both Deep Purple and Cheap Trick; and 2017 does the same with both ELO and Yes (with Geddy Lee playing bass in place of the late, great Chris Squire). Hi-def video and audio are first-rate.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, an elite troop of U.S. Special Forces goes to Afghanistan to kick-start the War on Terror by (at first begrudgingly and later more willingly) teaming with the North Alliance to battle the Taliban and al Qaeda.
This straightforward and effective dramatization of the group’s heroics has been directed by the workmanlike Nicolai Fuglsig, and the heroes are enacted with true grit by Liam Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Pena, among others. The hi-def transfer is exceptionally good; extras comprise two behind-the-scenes featurettes.
DVDs of the Week
Ilan Ziv’s exhaustive six-part feature documents the history of capitalism, from Adam Smith’s incisive and misinterpreted insights (like his legendary phrase, “invisible hand”) to the 2008 global collapse, which—according to many renowned economists—wasn’t supposed to happen.
Through interviews with sundry experts and witty sequences explaining integral concepts, Ziv has made a thorough, impactful look at what, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst of all possible economic systems—except for all others.
A Violent Life
The Mediterranean island of Corsica (Napoleon’s birthplace) isn’t usually in movies, especially as shown in Thierry de Peretti’s gritty drama, whose protagonist returns from Paris to the raw, violent isle he grew up on after his best friend (and fellow gang member) is murdered.
Through clever flashbacks, de Peretti trenchantly explores the underbelly of a modern society whose everyday life is gripped by crime and a regional fractionalism so severe that it’s led to a separatist movement against the arrogant French state.
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