2022 was a year of extremes and intensity: Russia’s war with the Ukraine; the US Supreme Court overturned abortion rights; Covid continues to disrupt; worldwide inflation and extreme weather events. Beyond the boundaries of our planet, the Webb telescope sent back awe-inspiring images of our galaxy, and the moon is experiencing a bit of a come back. No surprise that the films that document our lives also share these qualities.
Below are the documentaries that moved me this year: Read More
Dolor y Gloria – Pain and Glory
Antonio Banderas. Dolor y Gloria, 2019.
With his latest film “Dolor y Gloria” (Pain & Glory), Pedro Almodovar* has given us the most personal and restrained film of his career. But don’t let that fool you. Almodovar is a master of self reference, and he expertly weaves this nonlinear story within a story, a memory within a memory, the film within the film, leaving me wanting more. Like the reviewer in The Guardian, I felt that “this movie was running so smoothly and so seductively that it could have gone on for another five hours.”
Largely autobiographical, the story centers around Salvador, a film director (played by Antonio Banderas) in the autumn of his life, who is facing a creative block born out of profound emotional and physical pain. Antonio Banderas has never been better. While he plays a passive character at the bottom of a well of depression, he is so present and allows deep emotions to boil just below the surface. And this being an Almodovar film, there are moments that are really funny, especially when Salvador is persuaded to attend a Q&A of one of his classic films (a meta moment as we were also there to hear a Q&A with Almodovar after the screening).
Pedro Almodovar and Kenneth Lonergan in conversation at the DGA Theater. Credit: Busy K.
Amazing Grace, 2018.
Get thee to the movie theater now, gentle reader, to see Aretha Franklin’s concert film Amazing Grace. To see it on the big screen is to be transported back to 1972, to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles where Franklin recorded her Grammy-winning gospel album. In search of authenticity that a studio recording could never achieve, Franklin brought the studio to church in every sense of the word with the support of the Southern California Community Choir, her band, and Rev. James Cleveland, one of the most renown gospel figures of the time. Read More
This summer Mellini Kantanyya and I returned to #SummerHours, a series about fun books, movies, and television shows by or about women. The series is running all summer long on the New York Women in Film and Television blog. Below are excerpts of my book picks, which are memoirs of NYWIFT Muse honorees. You can click on the links to read the full postings. Be sure to check out Mellini’s picks in her category “BingeWatch-Worthy Comedy Picks.”
This summer Mellini Kantanyya and I created #SummerHours, a series about fun books, movies, and television shows by or about women. The series is running all summer long on the New York Women in Film and Television blog. Below are excerpts of my TV picks, and you can click on the links to read the full postings. Be sure to check out Mellini’s picks in her category “Book to Screen…and Back Again.” Read More
I Am Not Your Negro – Review
James Baldwin, Associated Press.
The Oscar-nominated “I Am Not Your Negro” is a piercing film about writer, poet, and social critic James Baldwin. He was one of our most critical advocates for equality, and his work holds an essential place in the canon of American literature. The film finds its structure from Baldwin’s own words. Read by Samuel Jackson in the most understated performance of his career, those words have a renewed relevance today. Back-to-back shows have run at the Film Forum this month. It’s one of the most important films you’ll see all year. Read More
“How to Dance in Ohio” – Review
Marideth Bridges, right, in “How to Dance in Ohio” on HBO.
There’s a story I was told recently about a boy with autism. One summer, his mother took him to the community pool every day, and every day people would avoid him or stop and stare. The mother worried that this would be his life, playing alone at the opposite end of the pool, suffering the gaping of strangers. One day, towards the end of the summer, a girl about eight years old tried to talk to the boy but got silence in return. She marched up to the mother and asked, “Does he have autism?”
The mother replied, “Yes, he does.” With that the girl turned on her heel, returned to the boy and changed her dialogue to make it much more direct. She said, “Get on the float, and I’ll pull you. I’ll throw the ball, and you’ll catch it.” And for 20 blissful minutes, the mother saw her baby boy laughing and playing with another child for the first time all summer. Joyful, hopeful tears ensued.
It is with this story in mind that I watched the documentary “How to Dance in Ohio,” a portrait of young adults with autism preparing for a spring formal dance. (Full disclosure, it was produced by my dear friend Bari Pearlman. ) Well-deserved praise has followed the film since its premiere at Sundance this year, and now it is widely available on HBO. Read More
Thoughts on “Listen to Me Marlon”
“Listen to Me Marlon” Showtime Films, 2015.
Last month I broke my own rule – only comment on storytelling that moves me in some positive way – to write about what I see as a dangerous trend in documentary filmmaking: when unprecedented access to a subject veers into exploitation. Just because filmmakers have “never before seen” footage, it doesn’t mean that they need to use all of it. Exercising a little restraint is not only respectful of the subject matter, it makes for better storytelling.
In the case of “Montage of Heck” and “Amy,” documentaries about the downward spirals of Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse respectively, I felt both films were irresponsible in their capitalization of tragedy. With “Amy” in particular, the use of very disturbing self portraits left on Winehouse’s personal computer, crossed a line, in my opinion. As I wrote earlier, I highly doubt that Winehouse would have wanted to share those private photos with anyone, much less the public at large. By including them, it was an invasion of her privacy, and it made me as an audience member complicit in that invasion. I mention it now as a segue to another recent biographical film with unprecedented access that actually gets it right.
“Listen to Me Marlon” is a biography of Marlon Brando, one of the most influential film actors of all time, as told uniquely in his own words. Commissioned by Brando’s estate, director Stevan Riley had access to over 300 hours of audio tapes recorded by Brando himself over the course of his life. Musings on his childhood, his conflicted feeling about acting and the business of Hollywood, his involvement in civil rights during the sixties, and later his desire to remove himself from the spotlight are woven together to create an intimate and layered portrait of the enigmatic man. Though it’s not a perfect film, it is wildly creative with its use of animation, giving the effect of the actor speaking beyond the grave. Brando recorded these audio tapes for the purpose of a future biography, so in a sense, this film, which was blessed by the family, is posthumously authorized.
“Listen to Me Marlon” is being shown now in select theaters in New York City and Los Angeles and will air on Showtime after its theatrical run.
Thoughts on “Montage of Heck” and “Amy”
Kurt Cobain (WireImage/Kevin Mazur). Amy Winehouse (AP Photo/Matt Dunham).
Let me begin by saying that music docs are my favorite form of story telling when they explore the creative process, the complicated dynamics among talented people, and how life influences the music. “Some Kind of Monster” is a remarkable look at the inner workings of Metallica as the aging band records a new album and struggles with the pressure to exceed the expectations of their fans. “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart” chronicles the making of the band Wilco’s fourth album and the subsequent break up of two long-time collaborators. In my favorite film of all time, “Gimme Shelter,” the audience rides along with the Rolling Stones during their 1969 US tour and is not only privy to intimate moments in the studio with the band but also bears witness to the exact moment the free-loving hippie sixties ended.
That said, I’m having a problem with the alarming trend of posthumous documentaries about troubled artists. Last week I watched both “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” from director Brett Morgen and “Amy” from director Asif Kapadia (who also did the terrific “Senna” doc in 2010) about Amy Winehouse. Watching these films back-to-back, the paths of the two subjects are undeniably similar. Both Cobain and Winehouse were extremely talented young artists who wrote songs that were intensely personal. Both defined success as being able to play music for a living, and both shunned the media machine that thrust them in the spotlight. Both suffered troubled childhoods and addictive personalities, and as a result, neither had the tools to properly insulate themselves from the stress of celebrity. They both slid into the depths of drug abuse as a way to escape the clutches of public eye. Tragically, both died at the age of 27.
THE KNICK – Season 1 – 2014 – Photo Credit: Mary Cybulski/Cinemax
The Knick is the best bloody show on television. The season 1 finale aired last week, and it’s stuck with me ever since. Truthfully, I’ve been a fan since the first episode got under my skin (see what I did there?), and this is less of a review and more of a gushing love letter. And I’m not alone:
“The Knick is such modern television it’s like a shot of cocaine between the toes.” The AVClub Read More