Tag Archives: Documentary

Tread

21 Feb

‘Tread’: They did this bulldozer owner wrong, and he’ll take out half the town to make it right

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Documentarian Paul Solet takes a newsreel curio and turns it into “Tread,” a riveting, anthropological examination of small-town life, the hairs that get curled during long legal proceedings and the psychological pathology of righteous retribution. If you dial back to 2004 you may recollect a pissed-off citizen going berserk in the podunk town of Granby, Colorado, with a bulldozer. It was no ordinary piece of construction equipment, but a Komatsu D55A tricked out with armor and automatic weapons – in essence, a tank that authorities were ineffective in stopping for a several-hourlong rampage.

But before getting to that, Solet rewinds to what would send Marvin Heemeyer over the edge. It’s important to keep in mind that Granby’s a close-knit mountain town of 2,000. In interviews, many townsfolk reflect fondly on Heemeyer, noting his amiable manner and skill as a welder and skimobile racer. During the buildup we also meet Trisha Macdonald, Heemeyer‘s girlfriend, whose sensible and reflective presence doesn’t suggest the kind of person who would take up with someone who was arguably off their rocker, let alone a brimming sociopath. But then there are tape recordings by Heemeyer himself, righteous and delusional: “God bless me in advance for the task which I am about to undertake.” In a pivotal scene underscoring the psychological mood, a re-enactor playing Heemeyer shaves his head, Travis Bickle style, before firing up the big rig.

The pushing point, we’re told, is a long simmering land dispute. Heemeyer owned and operated a muffler and welding shop, but the parcel he bought at auction was also desired by a local businessman with strong municipal and political ties. Infractions and numerous legal battles – that Heemeyer lost – added up and took their toll, forcing the 50-something craftsman to withdraw and put his skill to work. The killdozer, when you first catch a glimpse of it, seems like something out of a zany sci-fi or post-apocalyptic film. What’s also impressive is Solet’s meticulous orchestration of the narrative, especially during that final chaotic showdown when a gantlet of police, grenades, 50-caliber bullets and even earth movers couldn’t stop Heemeyer from obliterating half the town. The blend of archival footage, commentary from the participants and re-enacted dramatization builds with the taut grit of a hardboiled thriller.

Solet, born and raised in Cambridge, cut his teeth in the horror genre (“Grace,” “Dark Summer” and a “Tales of Halloween” segment). His last outing, “Bullet Head” (2017) was something of a crime thriller with an envious cast, featuring Adrien Brody, Antonio Banderas and John Malkovich. The project wasn’t quite fully baked, but perhaps a helpful warm up for “Tread,” a clear departure for Solet that’s a compelling ride and a window into the machinations of small-town life that push one of their own too far.

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

21 Feb

‘What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael’: Sweet kiss for film critic with acid tongue

 

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Rob Garver’s hagiographic ode to the life and work of film critic Pauline Kael adequately covers the writer’s rise to her post at The New Yorker, her daunting (perhaps exaggerated?) influence on the film industry and her legions of A-list admirers. What distinguished Kael, besides being the lone woman in an all-male club when she got into film criticism back in the 1950s, were her uniquely punchy, eloquent and visceral reactions, many imparted in a single sentence. Kael also became famous for her embrace of graphic violence (she largely adored Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah and Coppola) and envelop-pushing erotica (“Last Tango in Paris”) while gouging away at sacred cows such as French New Wave icon “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and Christmas classic “The Sound of Music” (“the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”).

“What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is framed with tape recording of Kael being interviewed by a young girl who gaily asks the critic her first movie (Chaplin) and later, her favorite film is (a detail I’ll let the moviegoer discover). Kael, who lived in Great Barrington and died just before 9/11, came from humble roots in Northern California, where she attended college at Berkeley. She never graduated, failed as a playwright in New York and her one marriage ended quickly, but throughout it all she maintained a deep passion for emotion-provoking narratives, be they bound by book jacket or cinematically projected. Her early reviews were on radio and for free, but being a single mother Kael looked to get paid for her labor; before landing at The New Yorker she was at McCall’s, which ended badly. 

Film clips spruce up the narrative, sometimes to echo Kael’s thoughts and other times simply as illustrating the film being trumpeted or impaled. We get Kael’s personal reflections from letters and other scrawlings read by Sarah Jessica Parker in voice only, evoking a smooth, husky Hollywood starlet persona that feels warmly congruent with the actual Kael we hear at the bookends, and in interview clips with Dick Cavett and other TV talk show hosts of the era. Plenty of celebrities lend their talking heads to the project, most prominently screenwriter/director Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), Alec Baldwin and film-nerd-turned-auteur Quentin Tarantino. Continue reading

American Dharma

2 Jan

‘American Dharma’: Bannon in a bunker, explaining what makes him tick, tick, tick …

 

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The latest from local filmmaker and provocateur Errol Morris presents something of a rewind of the 2016 election, as well as a delve into the alt-right media machine – with a healthy side of cinema studies to boot. Morris’ somewhat controversial “American Dharma” provides plenty of space for former Trump campaign organizer/adviser and Breitbart honcho Steve Bannon to make his case for Trump and the hard right, most of it through cinematic references such as Gregory Peck’s iron-fisted general in “Twelve O’Clock High” (1949), Robert Redford’s out-of-left-field pol in “The Candidate” (1972) and John Wayne in pretty much any John Ford western. Turns out Bannon’s a fan of Morris’ award-winning doc “The Fog of War” (2003), which featured businessman and secretary of defense Robert McNamara, who like Bannon attended Harvard Business School and similarly treated war and politics as business problems and chess matches.

Early on, as Morris interviews the commanding agitator in an abandoned hanger – ostensibly emulating Peck’s command center in that Henry King classic – Bannon in his gushing appreciation of “Fog of War” gives Morris an insider pat on the back about filmmaking. It’s an eye-popping pause, but true enough: Bannon has 10 directorial credits on IMDB, with such right-wing propaganda docs as “Torchbearer” (2016) and “Battle for America” (2010), most having abysmally low ratings (in the 2 or 3 range, with one or two breaking the middling 5 mark). During the session, Bannon recounts his entry at Breitbart, the takedown of Anthony Weiner on Twitter and joining Trump with shrewd strategies to shift the tide in the 2016 presidential campaign. For instance: to counter the Billy Bush tape, he attempted to sit Bill Clinton’s four sexual assault accusers at the front of a presidential debate the former president was to be in attendance at. The mention of Russian trolls is scant, and Hillary Rodham Clinton in her own words (via a post-election interview clip) attributes her loss almost exactly to what Bannon does: the Comey investigation and emails to Weiner.

Throughout the film, which boasts a smart score and does a brilliant job of interweaving film and news clips with public opinion overlaid via the Twittersphere, Morris, who clearly has vastly different political leanings than Bannon, affords his subject a long leash – perhaps too long – but not one that can’t be tugged on by the factual record. It’s nearly comical and hard to fathom when Bannon balks incredulously at Morris’ announcement that he voted for Hillary because he feared Trump. Later, when Morris links Bannon’s departure from the White House to the deadly Unite the Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, Bannon does a soft shoe and reverts to his fearmongering prognostications of greater divisions to come (check out his latest venture, warroom.org.) 

If there’s one thing to drink in about Bannon, it’s his cocksure confidence and charisma (on display more here than when at Trump’s side). He’s a clear natural leader with patriotic zeal, but the question then becomes: of whose country, and with what agenda? Morris and subject go at that, and watching the film, it’s chilling to see the spell Bannon and the alt-right can cast. Educated progressives clearly discounted that too much in the past; Morris’ film serves as stark (if accidental) reminder of that, and a timely one.

Interview with Local Filmmakers of “The Rabbi Goes West”

15 Nov

‘Rabbi Goes West’ on mission to Montana, filmmakers following to close out festival

 

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North Cambridge resident Gerald Peary knows a lot about film. He’s been a critic for more than 40 years and a film studies professor and curator for more than a quarter-century, and is about to premiere his third documentary feature, “The Rabbi Goes West,” Sunday night at the Somerville Theatre. The film – co-directed with Peary’s wife, Amy Geller, it follows a Chabad rabbi who moves from Brooklyn, New York, to Bozeman, Montana – closes out this year’s Boston Jewish Film Festival, playing this week and last at the Brattle Theatre and other locations.

The reason for 34-year-old Chaim Bruk’s relocation is a mission to bring his brand of Judaism to the American West by placing a mezuzah (an encased prayer offering) on the door of every Montana Jew – not a large population. Along the way Bruk encounters resistance from within the Jewish community, and more frighteningly, threats from neo-Nazis.

“I wanted to make a film which spoke to my Judaism,” Peary said. “I’m the most secular Jew, who doesn’t attend synagogue but knows who all the Jewish writers, athletes, et cetera, are. I asked myself, ‘What do I like about Judaism?’ I like mezuzahs – the scrolls put up on Jewish doorposts including inside a verse from Deuteronomy. Having a mezuzah on your door tells the world you’re Jewish, and it’s a big ‘fuck you’ to Hitler, Nazis and Neo-Nazis. ‘Jews are here!’”

“The Rabbi Goes West” co-directors Amy Geller and Gerald Peary.

“Anyway, I read on the Internet about a Hasidic rabbi who has a pledge to put a mezuzah on the door of very Jew in the state of Montana – that’s 2,000 Jews in a state 14 times larger than Israel. I called up Rabbi Chaim Bruk in Bozeman, Montana, and he invited Amy out to film him putting up mezuzahs. The rest is our movie,” Peary said.

Geller co-directed “The Guys Next Door” (2016), a documentary about a gay male couple raising daughters, and Peary said he was delighted to work with a partner who is a “brilliant, talented producer first, and second, knows documentaries inside and out.”

“She was also incredibly demanding about our film,” Peary said, “never letting go of any facet of the movie until she felt it was perfect.“ During production, Peary said most nights they would discuss and argue about the film over dinner and while going to bed. “That was all exhausting,” he said, “but if the movie is really good, it’s because of the intensity of our collaboration.”

Over the years, Peary has penned for several alt-weeklies in the area (“Real Paper” and “Boston Phoenix” – both sadly defunct), taught film studies at Suffolk University and continues to run the Cinemathèque program at Boston University and contribute to The Arts Fuse. His first film, “For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism” (2009), which Geller co-produced, served as something of a bittersweet elegy for iconic film critics Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris (both died in the short years following) and poetically pondered the fate and value of film criticism. In 2015, his “Archie’s Betty” explored the roots of the comic book town of Riverdale in Haverhill, where Archie creator Bob Montana had attended high school.

Peary doesn’t think making movies affects what he writes when easing back into the critic’s chair – something Ebert also did, having famously penned Russ Meyers’ bit of 1970s kink, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”

“Everyone making movies has endless hardship stories, especially about the financing part in a country which doesn’t support the arts in any way. But it’s ultimately what’s on screen that counts, and only what counts,” Peary said. “I’ve always been a tough critic with high demands for cinema, and I remain that way.”

Midnight Traveler

16 Oct

 

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Imagine if you had no home, no country and a bounty on your head. That’s the scenario facing filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his wife and two young daughters in “Midnight Traveler,” when the clock runs out on asylum requests in Tajikistan and they face deportation back to Afghanistan, where the Taliban put out a contract on Fazili’s life in 2015. It’s unclear what Fazili had done to raise the Taliban’s ire, but in Kabul he did operate a cafe that served men and women (generally not well received in strict Islamic communities that favor gender segregation); and as a filmmaker, he’s sure to have caught the eye of theocrats who enforce their rule with a sword and an AK-47.

The endgame for the Fazili family is Germany (which the film paints as the immigrant Eden of the EU), but it’s a long slog there and a harrowing one filled with peril and uncertainty. The journey begins with a brief reroute to Afghanistan, then there’s some rocky mountain passages with leaden backpacks, riotous gangs that target refugees in Bulgaria and the never knowing if your ride from one country to another will show up or skip off with the money. 

The whole ordeal’s captured on iPhones operated by Fazili and his wife. The overall tenor’s quite intimate, and the cameras continue to roll even during sudden upheavals and Kafka-esque political processes – and Fazili the filmmaker at times seems more focused on a shot than on a stumbling child. The scenes of the two girls just being kids without a care, when they occasionally have the time and safe space to relax, are wholly affecting, deepened by a preceding clip in which racial epithets rain down on those entering from elsewhere. It’s eye-popping too to realize as Fazili and family move west – toward Western civilization – just how uncivil and unaccepting some of these bastions of art and culture are. 

As a narrative device, the long haul is broken into time/location entries such as “Day 51: Ovcha Kupel Refugee Camp, Bulgaria.” “Diary of a Refugee” might have been a more apt title. No matter, “Midnight Traveler” registers a moving illumination of the inimical challenges faced by those forcibly dislocated from their homeland, adrift on foreign soil and at the mercy of others.

Aquarela

29 Aug

‘Aquarela’: Stunning environmental images from Kossakovsky might leave you gasping

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Had you asked me about four weeks ago, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” would have been the definitive must-see-on-the-big-screen movie. Why? Well, Robert Richardson’s lush era-illuminating cinematography, for one thing, and the amazing sets that re-create 1969 Los Angeles. But the answer changed last week after I drank in a screening of Victor Kossakovsky’s commanding contemplation about water, “Aquarela.” It was an outright obliteration with all the shock and awe that only Mother Nature can deliver when at her extreme-weather fiercest.

“Aquarela” doesn’t have a narrative arc in the conventional sense. It’s more a mounting experience that washes over you. Tagging it as a hybrid of a Godfrey Reggio film (“Koyaanisqatsi”) and an ICA visual art installation doesn’t quite do it justice, but it gets you close. There’s little human dialogue and never any location tags as it slips seamlessly from Siberia to Greenland, California and ultimately, the breathtaking Angel Falls in Venezuela – with a harrowing few moments inside the wrath of Hurricane Irma. Much of the soundtrack too comes from mama nature herself: the perilous pop and crack of vast spans of ice, towering waves crashing down and the harsh, whistling whip of the wind; to take the edginess of this beautifully frightening omnipotence higher, the punk-metal music by the aptly named group Apocalyptical (imagine a Gwar and Nine Inch Nails collaboration) digs into your temples at turns. It’s almost too much, but that’s part of the point. 

The film begins with its most placid, yet harrowing sequence as team of Siberians retrieve a car from beneath an ice-capped lake using just old-fashioned wood and rope tackle. It’s riveting, though a tedious task to observe as they work in near silence, often lying prone to peer through the thick crystal sheet and occasionally crashing through the surface with nonchalant regard. We learn those who drove the car escaped through the hatch – driving on the ice is how these guys get around. Later we see from afar another car cruising the ice, and it too drops from sight. The ensuing scene will not soon leave you.

The film mostly showcases its subject’s majestic indomitableness in aesthetically wondrous framings that are at once hypnotic and eye popping – an exception being a look at those pinned down by Irma and fighting to hold on amid devastating mudslides and massive flooding. There’s no question the film’s a dispatch underscoring climate change and the need for us to clean up our act. Hard to argue, and done so in subtly contemplative fashion the way Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s 2013 locally shot documentary, “Leviathan” and Werner Herzog’s 2007 cold dive “Encounters at the End of the Word” so elegantly did. 

The real power in “Aquarela” is Kossakovsky‘s patiently observant cinematography, which captures some moments that even seem implausible – yet there they are. Kossakovsky shot the film at 96 frames, something of a broadening trend. It’s a true spectacle and wonderment that should taken in its intended natural format.

Marianne and Leonard

11 Jul

‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’: A muse recalled in verse long after the poet moved on

 

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Documentarian Nick Broomfield has tackled some beguiling and controversial subjects during his prolific career, be it Tinseltown escort-turned-entrepreneur Heidi Fleiss (“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”), serial killer Aileen Wuornos (“Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer”) or the enigmatic death of grunge icon Kurt Cobain (“Kurt & Courtney”). Broomfield has a shaggy-dog quality to his approach, tending to insert himself into the story no matter his proximity or relevance, and sometimes oddly so – not overbearing like Michael Moore, but it still can be a distraction. In “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” Broomfield can legitimately ring the bell as a participant; Marianne Ihlen, the front half of the film’s title, was at one point Broomfield’s lover, and allegedly his inspiration for becoming a filmmaker.

The other half of the title is none other than iconic folk signer Leonard Cohen, who had a longtime relationship with the Norwegian-born Ihlen. The two met in the early 1960s at an artists community on the Greek isle of Hydra, back when Cohen was a writer and had yet to meet Judy Collins (he penned “Suzanne”and she made it a hit in ’67) and go on to become a major force in shaping the popular music of the late ’60s and early ’70s. (Hydra was also where Broomfield met Ihlen).

The singer and his muse had a “free” or “open” relationship (thus that brief tryst with Broomfield, who became jealous of another lover on a higher-up rung) that would span decades – several of Cohen’s songs are tributes to her. The film doesn’t center wholly on the relationship, as the title might imply, but more on the after-Hydra days when Cohen decided he needed to do something else to earn a better income. That promising partnership with Collins enters and the focus shifts from Ihlen to Cohen’s musical successes and pitfalls, as well as his self-destructive yen for women and drugs. Cohen aficionados won’t be too much they don’t know (the Hydra chapter may be the exception), but the archival footage – including some newly discovered film shot by famed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker – will hit all the right nostalgia notes and likely educe a new degree of appreciation. Broomfield too tries to layer in his appreciation for Ihlen, even capturing her last, infirm moments, which, because of the remote presence of Cohen, come off more as liberating fist pump than sad, agonizing whimper.

If there’s one thing Broomfield’s deferential redial of a man, a woman and a career does, it’s to show that creative genius does not brew exclusively in one soul, and that nurturing and encouragement from others is needed. There’s also the epiphany that the man, mostly regarded as a cool, croaky crooner with an avuncular exterior, roamed in some dark places chasing artistic self-indulgence.