Documentary short about Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, focusing on the people whose lives were ruined. The personal angle is effective, equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating. It might be improved if it were feature-length, since the short running time (36 minutes) leaves no room for a broader context.
david attenborough: a life on our planet (alastair fothergill, jonathan hughes, and keith scholey, 2020)
New technology (better to say "new-to-me technology") is problematic, at first, precisely because it can be so impressive. I spent so much time enjoying the quality of the 4k picture on A Life on Our Planet that I often forgot to pay attention to the message David Attenborough was trying to get across. Which is no criticism of Attenborough, who is a veteran of explaining nature to us. The irony is that, while I am admiring the new-to-me technology, part of me can't wait for the inevitable moment when I will no longer consciously notice the improvements over past technologies.
It's not that Attenborough tells us something new in this 2020 film. Our world is in danger, or rather, while nature always abides, the changes we are making to it could lead to the extinction of human beings. He refers to the film as his "witness testimony" ... he's been there and done that, and his presentation of nature here is personalized. He carries an authority with him that is convincing, and there is a sadness as he describes the ways we are screwing up. But the final section of the film is more positive, for Attenborough doesn't think it is a lost cause, at least not yet. There are things we can do, starting immediately, that will help restore nature to an earlier state, one that will lead to balance, a place with room for humans. It's effective, because his list of problems are believable, and then he carries that believability over to his proposed solutions. Of course, humans still have to act on those solutions, and there's no guarantee that will happen.
Meanwhile, the beauty of nature in the film makes you want to preserve it, to rebuild it. That beauty is in some ways the film's best argument in favor of nature.
Geezer Cinema: Kimi (Steven Soderbergh, 2022). I found the choices at the local theater to be uninspiring, so I opted for an in-home Geezer movie this week. Kimi has the feel of a pandemic movie, for good reason ... it was made during the pandemic, and it takes place during the pandemic. The character played by Zoë Kravitz suffers from agoraphobia, and you get the feeling the quarantine, while making it easier for her to just stay at home, nonetheless didn't exactly help her condition. Kravitz is great in the role, emotionally stunted in some ways and yet she believable rises to the occasion in the climax. There are a lot of That Guys (Jaime Camil and Jacob Vargas, Rita Wilson, and Robin Givens, who even though I knew she was in it I forgot to notice her). As he often does, Soderbergh does his own cinematography and editing using pseudonyms. Soderbergh is the King of Geezer Cinema for some reason. We watched Contagion back when we first started staying at home during the pandemic, and since then we've seen Logan Lucky, Haywire, and No Sudden Move, so Kimi makes #5. I usually like his movies (he is #51 on my most recent list of top directors), and my wife seems to share my enjoyment ... she has picked three of the five Geezer movies we've watched.
Revisiting the 9s: Murderball (Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, 2005). [This is the ninth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]
When Murderball came out, I wrote:
The film makers don't always seem to trust their material (wheelchair rugby played by macho quadriplegics) ... the movie gives off a feeling of manufactured drama at times. But the stories of the athletes, and the (infrequent for a sports film) action-packed scenes of what is best described as bumper cars played by Mad Max refugees, tip the scales towards excellence. It's also interesting that real-life events conspire to prevent some of the more predictable drama ... I'm trying to avoid spoilers here ... perhaps that's why the film makers try to hype up other dramatic aspects of the narrative. But it works ... when things don't always turn out "right," the film feels far more "real" than when the hype takes over.
I don't have much to add after a second viewing 15 or so years after the fact. The main characters in the film capture our attention, and the film is engrossing to the extent that we care what happens to these people. But one thing about my reluctance to give the highest rating to more recent films is that this doesn't seem to hold for documentaries. If I am taken with a documentary, I'll go all the way with a rating (to cite a recent example, Summer of Soul). I think I may have rated Murderball a bit too highly at the time, and even then, I only handed out a 9/10. Now? I'm feeling an 8/10 coming up.
[This is the eighth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]
Apparently I never wrote about Control Room when I first saw it, so this is a chance not only to re-evaluate it but offer a few words, as well. Jehane Noujaim gave us one of the greatest documentaries of recent years, The Square, which began with the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 and was so locked into the moment that, after it won awards at the Sundance Film Festival, Noujaim continued to edit it to reflect more recent events.
Control Room is a cinéma vérité film that documents the work of Al Jazeera covering the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was filmed by Noujaim and Hani Salama, and offers the best of what cinéma vérité can offer. Of course, there are those who point to the editing process in cinéma vérité films as a way to construct reality while presenting it as unconstructed. In Control Room, there are parallel versions of this. Not only has the film been criticized for being biased, Al Jazeera itself is subject to the same criticisms. But, as one person says in the film, comparing Al Jazeera and mainstream U.S. news media, "This word 'objectivity' is almost a mirage". And Noujaim herself has said of the film, "I am not saying it is the truth, but it is our truth".
One of the more interesting characters in the film is Marine Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a spokesperson for the military in Iraq. Like all people in his position, he offers the kind of spin that his bosses want to hear, but he also comes across as genuinely wanting to understand Al Jazeera and the Arab perspective. Rushing later left the Corps and joined Al Jazeera English.
A second viewing of Control Room didn't convince me I'd underrated a classic, but it's not an insult to say it just misses being as great as The Square.
Free Solo looks dazzling, and its subject matter, the "free solo" climb up El Capitan by Alex Honnold, is both inspiring and terrifying. The music by Marco Beltrami reaches a peak during the final segment when Honnold attempts his climb, adding immeasurably to the film and the spectacle. Honnold is a rather charismatic lead ... there's something a bit off-putting about him, and the case seems to be made here that he requires a certain distance from others if he is to accomplish his goal. In one of the film's most famous quotes, he says, "Anyone can be happy and cozy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cozy." Honnold says things like this, but when he smiles, all is forgiven.
Honnold's then-girlfriend (now wife) Sanni McCandless has a lot to do with humanizing the film's representation of Honnold. They have an honest relationship, where she pushes him to be more open but understands that "happy and cozy" isn't what Honnold thinks will get him up El Capitan. When we watch Honnold and think "what the fuck", it's clear that a part of McCandless is thinking the same thing.
So it's gorgeous ... the logistics behind the cinematography must have been extremely difficult, which we see a bit during the movie ... great music, one-of-a-kind athletic performance. But ...
For all of McCandless' on-screen appeal, her role in the film never moves much beyond the supporting partner. OK, Free Solo isn't about her, and I'm not saying she is dismissed. But it feels like her most important role is to tell Honnold it's OK. Also, the film is directed by the married team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, and certainly they made the decisions about how to present the documentary. But since Chin is part of the climbing team that photographs Honnold, we see a lot of him, and by the end of the movie, you'd be forgiven for wondering just exactly what did Chai Vasarhelyi do? I don't think there's anything intentional going on ... the secondary nature of the roles of McCandless and Chai Vasarhelyi are almost casual, and can go unnoticed. But the problem is there.
More important is the voyeuristic nature of what we are seeing. No one is suggesting that Honnold has a death wish, but we are reminded several times that Chin and his filming crew are worried about filming their friend falling to his death. We in the audience can't help but think about it, and if this was fiction, that would just add to the tension. But we're talking about a real person on the side of the mountain, and it's hard to escape the realization that, like watching an auto race for the crashes, part of the thrill of Free Solo is knowing what might have happened.
Having said all of this, I never quit being amazed as I watched Free Solo. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature ... I might have voted for Minding the Gap, but Free Solo is fine.
This is the thirtieth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 30 is called "Lesbian Stories Week":
Another weekly theme based on the list of a Letterboxd user, this week we take a dive into films that include lesbian stories, either directly or through theming. I am not one to speak on if all the films included fit the bill or not, but I trust the list's creator (who seems to be getting a bit of unnecessary vitriol for having an opinion), and hope you all give one of these films a chance.
The Joy of Life is an unusual movie, thanks to the methods Jenni Olson uses to, not exactly tell a story, but to present a vision of San Francisco. The documentary has three segments, although I suppose some might quibble and say there were only two. At the beginning, a voiceover narration by Harry Dodge offers memories of loves past and present. Olson is credited as the writer, so it's up to us to decide if those memories are Dodge's, Olson's, or completely fictional. The narration is accompanied by landscape shots of various places in San Francisco. Olson doesn't often specifically connect the narration to what we see, but there is a general feel for The City, in both audio and visual. The middle segment has the narrator breaking down the Frank Capra film Meet John Doe. The transition is smooth enough, but I can't say I ever quite knew why we were learning about that movie. Finally, there is an extended look at the Golden Gate Bridge as a place where people come to commit suicide.
The narration is purposely flat, although again I don't know why. In the first segment, we are hearing about the emotional life of a butch lesbian, and the unemotional narration feels off. The talk about suicide also exists at something of a disconnect, but in both segments, there is a palpable feeling that what we are seeing and hearing is important to Olson. The film is dedicated to Olson's friend Mark Finch, who himself jumped off of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns up in the middle of the film as a voiceover reading one of his poems, which makes the film even more San Franciscan.
The Joy of Life is experimental, and its "differentness" makes it important. It also played a role in the continuing debate about constructing suicide barriers on the Bridge.
2021 was a good year for documentaries, and the Oscar nominations actually got it right. At the least, the four nominees I have seen are all very good, and classic at best (Summer of Soul being my choice for best movie of the year). Jessica Kingdon (along with co-cinematographer Nathan Truesdell, who is crucial to the film) had the idea to show the "Chinese Dream" and the impact of capitalism ... she doesn't shy away from big topics. She has mentioned being influenced by Frederick Wiseman, and it shows ... Ascension lacks narration or even explanatory information, with Kingdon and the cameras being observers, not participants (at least in theory). The result is like Wiseman's more abstract work, like Meat. The film always looks interesting, and Kingdon has done great work in the editing room. She may not explain things in an overt manner, but the flow of images can be entrancing, and, like Wiseman, she lets the viewer construct meaning from those images. Dan Deacon's score adds a lot to our appreciation.
Kingdon films in China, and it's easy to assume Ascension is specific to its locale. But what we as viewers bring to the movie matters ... an American will react to certain scenes about work and workers based on our own experiences, but we don't have a monopoly on the meanings. If nothing else, Kingdon shows us regular Chinese workers, without the propaganda that influences how we think about working conditions there. Again, Kingdon's film is not judgmental. But you do get a feeling for the mentality of the Chinese worker, just as you would watching a documentary about workers of any country. What we get from Ascension is a people who are told that hard work leads to success. Kingdon lets us decide how true that statement is, or how it works in reality for Chinese workers.
Documentaries that pretend to objectivity are usually that, pretend. A point of view is there whether or not the film makers are open about it. Attica has a point of view: that the inmates had righteous grievances, and that the state (personified by Nelson Rockefeller) brutally and murderously shut it down. If you don't accept this, then you will likely have problems with Attica.
Stanley Nelson compiles footage from the event, adds current interviews with some of the participants who are still alive, and tells a compelling and infuriating story. The basic facts are there ... prisoners rebel, take hostages, make demands, observers enter the picture (many of them well-known), change seems possible, and then the whip comes down. People are dead, people are tortured, all at the hands of the state. When it is found out that several of the hostages died, the state claims their throats were cut by inmates. Which stands until the medical examiner says no one's throat was slashed, that they all died of shootings by the authorities.
Nelson presents an air-tight case. The problem, as is often the case with documentaries, is that what we see is selective. Nelson has a point to make, and he chooses what to show us to help make his point. This isn't exactly false, except by omission. There are a lot of questions to be asked, if you think beyond the film itself. Nelson's work is so powerful that those questions don't necessarily jump to the surface. I was convinced, but then, I came to the film already assuming the prison authorities and politicians up to and including Rockefeller were corrupt. (Nelson adds Nixon's name to the list of infamy.) I believed what I saw, and after the fact, I still believe. But this is not a perfect movie just because I agree with it.
This is the twenty-third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 23 is called "Essentially Brazilian Week":
Was already thinking of making this list a weekly theme for this Season's Challenge, and this comment from a Brazilian Letterboxd user sealed the deal:
"Here on Brazil, our cinema is underappreciated, people just watch bad comedy movies and have a group who says we have a bad cinema, they don't know the classics and they think we just have five good movies: Dog's Will, Central Station, the two Elite Squad movies and City of God. See lists like this makes me happy,"
Another example of why I like doing this challenge: I knew nothing about Elena, or Petra Costa for that matter. Of the 107 films on the Essential Brazilian list, I'd only seen four. So welcome to a new experience.
Turns out, Elena is a documentary, which I didn't know ... OK, I'll quit, you get the point, I am clueless. The title character, Elena, is the older sister of the director, Petra Costa. Only one other person appears in the cast list, and she is Elena and Petra's mom. Petra Costa uses a combination of sources to construct her movie. There are home movies (Elena got her first movie camera when she was 13), an old diary of Elena's, and interviews Petra conducted with people in Elena's life. Elena, an aspiring actress, had moved to New York when Petra was 7 years old. After a return to Brazil, Elena is accepted into a university in New York, and she returns there, with her mother and Petra moving with her.
During that time, Elena kills herself ... it's not explained why, her family doesn't know, and that compounds their grief with the feeling they might have been part of the cause. The core of the film is Petra working her way through her relationship with Elena. She looked up to her big sister, and later identified with her (people comment on how much Petra looks like Elena). There is a sense that Petra is struggling not to repeat Elena's sad ending.
I was reminded more than once of Sarah Polley's great movie Stories We Tell. Polley deconstructs the rules of documentary and then puts them back together. Costa's film has arty touches, but it is a more straightforward documentary than Polley's film. And perhaps not as involving for the viewer, although I can imagine if you'd been through a similar experience to Costa, you would be very involved. Elena is not off-putting, but it is insular, a bit distancing. It's a strong movie, nonetheless.
You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.
The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.
Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.
It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.