Tag Archives: documentary

Review: ‘Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love’

dfn_marianne_and_leonard_words_of_love_300Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield is not one to shy away from salacious material. Tackling candle-in-the-wind musical lives such as Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston and Biggie and Tupac in previous non-fiction explorations, his latest film stays in line with the cult celebrity focus, this time adjusting its gaze on poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen and his decades-long relationship with his beautiful Swedish lover Marianne Ihlen.

And, yes, it doesn’t take long for someone (this time one of Cohen’s old road managers) to lament about the sexual excess of Cohen back in the day, even going so far as to wistfully hint at their own sexual conquests, just by being at the periphery of Cohen’s expansive shadow, complete with jovial stare off in the distance as glory days are recalled.

Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love inserts a lot of this type of gossip-magazine rhetoric, which at times makes it almost unbearable to watch. Yet, just when one thinks the documentary will never strike at the heart of anything genuine, it slowly coalesces into a moving collection of memories between two people destined to love each other deeply without having the joy of growing old together.

Beginning as Cohen and Ihlen first meet on the Greek island of Hydra in the 1960s, Marianne & Leonard charts their immediate attraction to each other, even though Ihlen was married with children. With the excuse of the rampant free-love swinging 60s culture, the two begin a highly visible off-and-on romance that far outlasts their expatriate paradise of hippies, reclusive writers and artists.

In fact, although the first half of the film is a bit messy and problematic with its narrative, it does a reasonably solid job of exploring the culture and population of Hydra itself. Seen as a sort of voracious melting pot for early 60s drop outs, including Broomfield himself, who naturally inserts himself into the story because he had his own relationship with Ihlen, the film virtually ignores its front and center couple, introducing others and describing their cursed fates years later.

The main draw, as Broomfield knows, is gravel-voiced singer Leonard Cohen, and it’s not long before he refocuses the documentary onto the musician’s elevated rise to cult stardom and whirlwind musical tours around the world. For someone not completely fluent about Cohen, Marianne &Leonard will do just fine as a biographical document of the man … although, for my money, it waits far too long to showcase any of his profoundly moving song “Hallelujah.”

How the relationship between Marianne Ihlen and Leonard Cohen bobs and weaves through the years of his immaculate stardom (basically, 1970 onwards) comprises the second half of the film, and it’s here that Broomfield’s voice as a more humanitarian filmmaker emerges. Left behind is the sully gossip and Polaroid snapshot National Inquirer feel for a more serious examination of the disparate paths Cohen and Ihlen take later in life.

And when Cohen quietly wonders aloud into a microphone if Marianne is in the audience before performing the song he penned for her, Broomfield’s film strikes at the heart of something deep and regretful. It also becomes quite clear why the film places her name before Leonard’s.

Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday,  July 19 at the Angelika Film Center in Plano and the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas.




Festival Files: DVF31 DocuFest, Dispatch #1

Now in its 31st year, but only the second to call itself “DocuFest” and solely program shorts and non-fiction efforts, the tagline for this year’s incarnation of Dallas VideoFest is “Film For Change.”

Choosing films that settle into distinct categories, including Women Who Make Movies, Jewish Cinema, Cinema History and Current Social Issues, festival programmer Bart Weiss seemed to create an event that felt even more progressively-minded than previous years. Just listening to the post film Q&A sessions where both filmmakers and audience members spoke with ferocity and despair about our current climate of division, hatred and intolerance, one can sense the palpable frustration of everyone trying to grasp the topsy-turvy (and unbelievable) state of the state. This is not just an event to sit back and enjoy a film (although there are those too), but one that’s asking radical questions and posing even more radical solutions.

One of the best documentaries of the first batch of films I saw included Nancy Schwartzman’s Roll Red Roll (pictured at top), a film that certainly could be the cinder for a larger explosion of answers and responsibility. Documenting the 2012 rape of a student by members of a successful high school football team in Ohio, Roll Red Roll pieces together the various tangents of the crime from police interrogation room footage, interviews and social media postings that ultimately helped to construct a case and then prosecute the teenagers involved.

Most remarkable about Schwartman’s investigative journey is the evolving black mirror of social media. Opening with only voices of (obvious) teenage boys laughing at the rape video they’re watching, passed among friends, Roll Red Roll later revisits said video in full screen splendor. Not only does this re-position our disgust at the events we only heard earlier, but it hammers home the sociopath nature of a group of teens and, eventually, an entire town that values the hollow glories of high school sports over the broken life of a rape victim. The film is disarming for the inconsequential way people laugh at a broadcasted crime. It’s infuriating the way people still don’t do a damn thing about it.

Like last year’s premier of Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, the festival has reached back into the annals of black and white actress history and culled another fascinating chapter out into the light. Directed by an ex-Turner Classic Movies researcher and personal fact checker to Robert Osborne for 20 years, Alexa Foreman’s Scandal: The Trial of Mary Astor looks at the child custody battle that erupted between said actress Astor and her divorced husband in the mid 30’s. Featuring all the salacious material you’d guess would be involved, Foreman’s researcher’s eye for detail illuminates the story from what could’ve been just another TCM documentary in between other films.

Featuring clips from Astor’s films, Foreman wisely only uses these excerpts as background for the real story of Astor’s taxing legal battle, including the exploitation of a diary she kept most of her life. Even attempting some dicey psychoanalysis of Astor, Scandal‘s biggest takeaway is the verve and tenacity of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the day and her transcendence beyond the little box she was marketed in.

Review: ‘Three Identical Strangers’

dfn-three_identical_strangers-poster-300When the story of Bobby Shafran, Eddy Galland and David Kellman surfaced in the early 80’s, it became tabloid and talk-show TV fodder.

Unbelievable to anyone not living it, the idea that three people (and identical twins no less) would be separated at birth and then reunited in their late teens by pure chance seems like the stuff of fantastical fiction. But it did happen, and director Tim Wardle’s new documentary Three Identical Strangers tells the story and more. Oh, so much more.

Spending its first half exploring the series of events that brought the three young men back together in 1980 and basking in their intuitive fraternal connection to each other, Wardle establishes a sense of charm and easygoing coincidence that makes for enjoyable viewing. We observe their many appearances on TV shows, mimicking each other and making an American population fawn over their boyish good looks and rugged East Coast dialect. They even made a cameo in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). And anyone’s whose seen that movie knows the scene which, upon viewing in my teenage days, always felt like an inside joke and is now agreeably explained as, yes, pretty much an inside joke.

It’s in the film’s second half when the skies begin to darken and more and more serious talking heads are brought into the fray to explain just how something this charming and easygoing could happen. It wouldn’t take much to fantasize about the  swirling, paranoid-drenched aesthetic a filmmaker like Errol Morris would drape around the events here. Ideas of ‘deep-state’ organizations and their devious methods of psychology abound. Nature versus nurture is a key touch stone as the film progresses. Hidden files and eighty year old secretaries are treated like revelations from ‘Deep Throat’. Ultimately, Wardle opens up an entire wound about the value of research and human behavior versus linear happiness and familial social boundaries.

Relying on a fairly pedantic documentary style with straight ahead personal testimonies and lackluster visual recreations, Three Identical Strangers survives not on visual grandiosity but the inherently fascinating story at the center. As each new chapter in the twins’ life is explained, the film deepens and even infuriates. It’s not fair for anyone to play God and what makes Three Identical Strangers most tragic is the fact that underneath the initial happiness experienced by Bobby, Eddy and David and no matter who or what commanded their unfair separation as babies, they ultimately paid the highest price.

Three Identical Strangers opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and the Angelika Film Center in Plano on Friday, July 6.

Festival Files: 2018 Dallas International Film Festival, Dispatch #2

Introducing his labor of love film titled Also Starring Austin, filmmaker Mike Blizzard confessed there are two swipes at the city of Dallas, one obvious and one not so obvious. The obvious one, which is a comment from one of the interviewees that Austin is still weird and cool because big idea guys from Dallas haven’t ventured in and ruined their town just yet, did hit a bit hard. But in lieu of good films, we let the comments slide. After all, we’re one big state that once wanted to secede from the entire Union, so how different can we really be?

Assembled from the clips of  over 120 various films, Also Starring Austin is exactly the type of regional filmmaking history I love. Directed by Blizzard and edited by Laura Colwell, the documentary is a rambunctious and sleekly cut together ode to the very unglamorous filmmaking scene of Austin, Texas from the 1920s to the present. Perhaps a better title would be “Austin Plays Itself.” Like Thom Anderson’s monumental film Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Blizzard utilizes scores of film clips to tell the evolving history of a city as it’s defined on celluloid.

Though much less scholarly than Anderson’s mammoth effort, bred from his distinctively dry background as a professor, Also Starring Austin does the same admirable job of surveying a city, its architectural bones, and its wavering culture throughout several decades of viewing via a wide angle lens. The tumultuous 60s … the independent burgeoning film scene of the 70s and 80s … and the financially provocative 90s are all explored in detailed fashion from film clips both macro (Spy Kids) and micro (David Boone’s early 80s short film Invasion of the Aluminum People, which no less than Jonathan Demme proclaimed to be a real American masterpiece).

Leaving no filmic stone unturned, Also Starring Austin also displays a playful sense of humor in the way editor Colwell ‘Frankenstein’s’ films together, so to speak, to create her own experiment. Watching scenes from the Coen Brothers’ debut film Blood Simple (1984) intercut with Ronald Moore’s z-grade apocalypse film Future-Kill (1985) not only injects a shrewd comment on Austin’s blank interchangeable urban architecture, but it reveals the broad canvas that no doubt lured so many to the city’s blank-canvas aesthetic.

Currently seeking distribution, Blizzard told me one of the only films he wasn’t able to include was the 1974 curiosity titled The Tomato That Ate Cleveland. If anyone knows of the whereabouts of that film’s missing reels, please notify the filmmaker asap. Until then, Also Starring Austin is as complete a retrospective course on Austin filmmaking that one can hope for.

Digging further into the documentary category, two films about musicians — Korn guitarist Brian “Head” Welch and Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto — couldn’t headline two more diverse talents. The real coup here? That both men are remarkably similar when it comes to finding spiritual equity within their hectic professions.

The more successful of the two is Ryuchi Sakamoto: Coda. Not only is it probably the best film I’ll see at DIFF, but it’s one of the best films of the year, period. Known to Western audiences mostly for his Oscar winning soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), Stephen Schible’s documentary showcases portions of Sakamoto’s recognized music both through film clips and live performances. However, the immense power of the film is eventually relayed through several long observations of Sakamoto recording his work. Endlessly wandering desolate locations like the Arctic Circle or a rain-drenched forest to record sounds, the infectious child-like glee that sprays across his face when he finds and molds the right sound into his atmospheric music is the crux of the film.

Beyond his decades-long composer career, Schible also follows Sakamoto in his humanitarian work, protesting against global warming and his dabbling in photography. Nothing quite compares to the portion where Sakamoto visits the Fukushima restricted zone, though. Amongst the rubble and debilitated structures, he wants to see a piano that’s survived the flood (complete with water line marks). He plays it gently and later finds the exact moments to add this survivor’s sounds into his latest work. It’s a stunning moment of resiliency and it just shows the vibrancy that has kept Sakamoto living (and fighting cancer) for so long now.

Less successful (but still respectable) is Scott Mayo and Trey Hill’s Loud Krazy Love. The film’s world premiere, it charts the rock-and-roll-lifestyle-desolation-to-salvation journey of Korn guitarist Brian Welch. Nibbling at the edges of a faith-based film (largely since it was produced by the noble I Am Second foundation), the documentary tells its story in a no-frills-by-the-book manner, checking off the right emotions and hitting all the (literal) beats. Welch is undeniably a charismatic persona and his story is one worth telling. I just don’t know if it’s justified on the big screen.

Review: Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

dfn-bombshell-poster-300Even though Alexandra Dean’s documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is ostensibly about the life and career of the gorgeous, taboo-breaking actress Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000), its winding path of information reveals the woman stood much greater than her resplendent screen presence.

Genius. Maverick. Inventor. Feminist pioneer. All of these descriptors apply to Lamarr. From her days of “walking into a room and having the whole room stop and stare” to a dilapidated, hermit lifestyle (and the butt of jokes from the likes of Mel Brooks and Andy Warhol within their various films), Dean’s effort portrays the actress as a complicated and conflicted character.

Breezing through six marriages that would have Freud jealous of the possible implications of father-abandonment issues, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story goes far beyond salacious Hollywood biography. Yes, there are those tidbits too. But did you know she created the idea of “frequency hopping” that informs the basic principles of wi-fi, Bluetooth and GPS manufacturing today? Probably not, since the United States Navy shoved it aside and never gave the proper acknowledgement of this technology borne from someone as untrained as a beautiful Viennese-to-Hollywood transplant. And female at that.

In telling Lamarr’s story, filmmaker Dean has crafted a kinetic, almost restless vision of the woman both in her personal and private lives. Like Asif Kapadia’s Amy (2015, about singer Amy Winehouse), director Dean told me in a quick chat session that Lamarr’s story was never meant to be a simple history lesson.

Fluidly crafted from a voracious cache of home movies, film clips, still photos, family interviews and four cassette-taped interviews conducted with Lamarr in the late 80’s that were eventually  discovered stashed away in the garage of a magazine writer, Dean ultimately scrapped six months worth of editing and re-tailored her film to be a moving portrait of the star via these collated elements. And it shows. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story fascinates the longer it runs, in part because of so much archival information.

The du jour moment for retelling star struck lives of the Hollywood elite has been in a boom recently, but Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is altogether different because of the immense unpredictability and hidden wisdom outside her career. Watching Lamarr saunter around in White Cargo (1942) or attempt to explain away her celluloid burning charisma in Ecstasy (1933) as naivete on the part of her young age and directorial manipulation, Lamarr clearly was a woman who understood how to use her powers of beauty early on. But what’s fascinating about Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story is the emerging paean to a screen goddess whose outer beauty was overshadowed only by her inner intelligence.

(Portions of this review were published earlier last year when the film premiered locally at Dallas VideoFest.)

The film opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, January 26 at the Fort Worth Museum of Modern Art. Check http://www.themodern.org for details.

Review: ‘The Road Movie’

dfn-the-road-movie-300While watching Dimitrii Kalishnakov’s oddly curated selection of car dash camera videos in The Road Movie, I asked myself what, if anything, could I learn about Russian society through this literal window of images?  There’s no real identifier from one video to the next, and the only common thread or theme as it cuts between each segment (each of intermittent length) is the fact that there are some absolutely crazy things going on out there.

If that’s the specified reaction Kalishnakov wants to evoke with The Road Movie, then it’s mission accomplished. Anything else is sorely lacking.

Comprised of stationary front windshield camera shots (presumably derived mostly from taxi cabs as the titles of each video reveals during the final credits), The Road Movie is like a Faces of Death for the digital age … except all of these images and events are real, unlike some of that cult film’s staged hysteria. We see endless car crashes on Russian highways. A car full of people reacting as they drive through the heart of a raging forest fire. A tank, complete with manned crew sitting atop smoking cigarettes, cut in front of a car to get in line for a car wash. And perhaps the most disturbing image is the one that feels the most real: a scantily clad woman, running up to the hood of a car from out of the darkness of a side road, obviously scared for her life, and sitting atop the hood of the car as if it’s the only relevant thing keeping her alive. It’s one of the few segments that begs the question of exposition and explanation that never comes.

In fact, nothing is ever explained. Each video segment starts and stops just as furiously. I get the feeling Dostoevsky would be proud. However, for all of its shock and awe, The Road Movie never really takes off, stalling behind an attention-deficit disorder of momentary pleasure at the misfortune of others. It offers split second gasps and head shakes at the violence of a car collision before moving onto the next episode. Depth, feeling or rational is not the purpose here.

So, to segue back to my original question. Can we learn anything from all this? Probably just as much as one can learn about American society by burrowing into the virtual rabbit hole of YouTube, which is not very much, outside the fact that life offers unexpected moments of serendipity … life is sometimes cruel … life is sometimes vapid … but mostly it’s often stranger than fiction. At the every least, The Road Movie epitomizes that. And if it offers some pretty amazing footage of that asteroid that crashed to Earth a few years back. I suppose that’s worth something.

The Road Movie opens in the Dallas-Fort Worth area on Friday, January 19 at the AMC Dine-In 30 Mesquite.