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Documentary Features
  • 1 Giant Leap
  • The Backyard
  • Bike Like U Mean It
  • Blue Vinyl
  • CQ
  • Cyberman
  • Downside Up
  • Escuela (School)*
  • Friends Forever
  • Gigantic
  • Grey Gardens
  • Hell House
  • Jimmy Scott: If Only You Knew
  • Journeys with George
  • Last Party 2000
  • Lifetime Guarantee*
  • Mai's America*
  • OT: Our Town
  • Owned
  • People Like Us
  • Spellbound*
  • Tribute
  • You see me Laughin'

  • 1 Giant Leap

    Yuck. Yuck. Yuck. I can’t believe I was all hyped to see this extended-length United Colors of Benetton music video. Filmmakers Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman were given a camera, fabulous sound equipment, and apparently shitloads of money to travel around the world, interviewing leading thinkers on topics ranging from sex to politics to commerce to religion. It’s all just too much–too long, too trendy, too precious–like an album where all the material has been over-arranged. Plus, the filmmakers made the interesting choice of not ID-ing their interview subjects as they speak, guaranteeing that their comments are context-free. How much more interesting, for example, would an interview on the sins of capitalism been if I had known that I was listening to Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop? Skip this commercial.

    –Roxanne Bogucka

    This year’s SXSW Film Festival featured a retrospective of the film of John Sayles. Staffer Reed Oliver sat down with the courtly Mr. Sayles for a half-hour during the festival.


    The Backyard

    "Wow, some young folks are seriously disturbed," was my initial reaction to this documentary by Paul Hough about the WWF-inspired practice of backyard wrestling, often involving barbed wire, tacks, and glass picture frames. The Backyard ain’t for the faint of heart. It depicts a lot of violence, both the showmanship behind the blood and the real injuries that occur, and then, in the last fifteen minutes, makes a feeble attempt to look below the surface. I love it when a movie reveals a new sub-culture to me, but The Backyard spends too much time glorifying and not enough analyzing.

    –Reed Oliver


    Bike Like U Mean It

    Short: Sean Connery Golf Project–Cute idea, not so great documentary. Two filmmaker wannabes steal onto the Sony lot with a camera and film their B&E of offices of various luminaries in the story department, including that of James L. Brooks. They take stuff, including Sony letterhead, some film memorabilia, and a script titled "Sean Connery Golf Project." They go home and rewrite said script, then return it to the Sony offices. They also open the Culver City Museum of Film with some of the liberated goods from Sony. No word on whether warrants are out on these two yet.

    Directors Susan Kirr and Rusty Martin covered the Austin bike scene for three years to make Bike Like U Mean It, a documentary about freedom of the public roads for all vehicles and about bikes as superior vehicles to cars. Using talking-head interviews from a variety of locations, archival footage of Critical Mass bike rides, and APD footage, Kirr and Martin fail to make the issues compelling to anyone not already interested in alternative transportation, or traffic, sprawl, and liveability. Reminded me of Al Gore good production values, serious about public policy issues while trying to make them cool. A wildly enthusiastic crowd, consisting of several of the film’s interviewees and their posses somewhat obscured the fact that Bike Like U Mean It was actually pretty pedestrian.

    – Roxanne Bogucka


    Blue Vinyl

    Blue Vinyl is a humorous and personal quest by Judith Helfand ( Healthy Baby Girl ) to expose the dangers of vinyl to the environment and to us. Not only was it perfectly crafted in a technical sense of the word, but it was lovingly made. Check it out on HBO sometime in early May.

    –Zack Schenkkan


    CQ

    Roman Coppola directs less like his father and more like Coen Brothers. His movie about film and human nature is complex, fascinating, and engaging. I will definitely try to see it again.

    –Zack Schenkka
    Cyberman

    Do you know when cameras are watching you? In stores? Parking lots? In your own home with those web mini-cams we all know from pop-up windows? Peter Lynchs Cyberman explores the life of Steve Mann, an MIT professor and weird photographer who has been viewing life through a head-mounted video camera for over 15 years. Issues of privacy, image vs. reality, and funding for not-immediately-profitable science swim through this odd documentary, but I was left unsatisfied when it ended with a whimper. Worth seeing, but not compelling, such is the fate of Cyberman.

    –Reed Oliver


    Downside Up

    I take it as a very good omen indeed that the short that precedes Downside Up is Matt McCormicks The Subconscious Art Of Graffiti Removal, which I just saw on the Peripheral Produce tour a couple of weeks ago. The audience at the Hideout screening space clearly enjoys Matt’s skewering of academic art-talk.

    Nancy Kelly is by no means the first to blame it all on her crappy hometown, but she’s alone, so far as I know, in taking the extreme position that formative years spent in North Adams, MA made her such a hopeless pessimist that one day she actually had to consider whether to preserve her own life! It’s therefore a relief to discover that she’s not some young thing, mistaking her troubled, strung-out life for art, but a pretty solid filmmaker who’s been in the business for more than two decades. In these post-industrial times, North Adams fallen into disrepair. Some of Kelly’s relatives still live there, but the good jobs are gone and a lot of this blue-collar town’s storefronts and factories–including Sprague Electric, where nearly all of her relatives worked–are boarded up.

    In the late 1980s, a couple of folks from Williamstown, a much tonier nearby town that’s home to ultra-expensive Williams College, began the campaign to convert those factories into the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, with the goal of enriching art and the depressed economy of North Adams. The ups and downs of the campaign to build it, and the reactions of the locals once it’s built form the bulk of Kelly’s pleasant-enough documentary.

    The decidedly non-representational art at Mass MoCA challenges the North Adams residents, particularly the installation "Upside Down Trees," in which six trees are planted upside down in pots depending from a large metal framework. The skeptical but desperately polite look on Kelly’s mother’s face as the creator of the piece describes its origins and meaning is classic. You just know that, after hearing this, she must have said, "Oh how interesting." Despite an echt-PBS feel to the film and a trite "kids are the future" ending, Kelly has nailed her lead perfectly. Art changes people and gives them hope.

    – Roxanne Bogucka


    Escuela (School)

    Hannah Weyers second film with the Luis family follows younger daughter, Liliana, and her travails as a student. Because the Luises migrate from south Texas to California, Liliana and her siblings change schools mid-year, every year. The disconnect between Texas curriculum and California curriculum has already caused Liliana’s older sisters to drop out. If Liliana can stick it out, she’ll be the first in her family to graduate from high school. After all, all she has to contend with is migrant lab classes that amount to nothing more than being parked, unsupervised, in the library; counselors who assign classes for which she hasn’t taken the prerequisites; a job picking fruit after school and on weekends; pedagogy that emphasizes success on a standardized test over subject mastery; and depressingly low expectations from teachers and fellow students alike.

    Alas, this is the kind of documentary that’s very good-hearted, very earnest work by a director who obviously cares greatly for her subjects. (Weyer’s previous film, La Boda, was about older sister Elizabeths wedding, and Elizabeth attended the screening of Escuela.) It’s also the type of documentary that confirms for non-documentary fans why they don’t watch non-fiction films: Not only are they unexcitingly reportorial, far too many of them leave you vaguely depressed. A film festival audience was just right for Escuela, and that’s too bad because it’s the kind of film that would really open the eyes and hearts of people who often wonder why "they" don’t value education.

    –Roxanne Bogucka


    Friends Forever

    Good Lord! Where are these people’s parents? Friends Forever is one of the few outrageous lifestyle documentaries that actually answers this question. Nate and Josh are the band, Friends Forever. Half the year, they live out of their cars while touring. Their schtick? They play their sets in their van, which they park outside of clubs where other bands are performing. They pass the hat. They pretty much give away their cassettes and albums. See them carouse with pals who abuse substances of every sort! See the squalor and inattention to personal hygiene that accompany weeks on the road in close quarters with their three dogs! See them meet with Lloyd Kaufman and get a Troma award! See their incredible friendship and belief in the power of music!

    A lot of the footage was shot under the same DIY constraints that Nate and Josh tour under, so it doesn’t look any too pretty.

    –Roxanne Bogucka


    Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns

    This documentary by AJ Schnack about eclectic band They Might Be Giants does a great job exploring the history, music, and relationship between members John Linnell and John Flansburgh, and any fan will love the anecdotes, revealing tidbits about their creative process, and the terrific live shows caught on tape. What Gigantic fails to explore is the rest of the Giants’ world. We see Linnell’s son at one point, but never hear about wives, girlfriends, boyfriends, or any other non-musical experiences or relationships. Both Johns refer to the dark lyrics that dominate their first five albums, but that’s it–no revelations as to what was dark or why it changed. Gigantic: thoroughly satisfying but not as revealing as it pretends to be.

    –Reed Oliver


    Gigantic: A Tale Of Two Johns

    That blinding light you see is my big, goofy grin. AJ Schnack captures the magic that melds John Linnell and John Flansburgh into awesome, largest-cult-band-on-the-planet, They Might Be Giants. What does Gigantic have to offer the non-TMBG-fan? Big, splashy graphics, fabulous performance footage, fan interviews, and somber celebrity recitations of some of Johns’ most elliptical lyrics, not to mention sit-down time with the guys themselves.

    The SXSW audience was packed with dedicated TMBG fans such as yours truly, who gave the film a rousing response. But I think the great music and infectious fun of Gigantic will reach anyone who stumbles into a theater where it’s on screen, not to mention creating legions of new fans for the group. Highly recommended. It’ll be a crime if this one doesn’t get picked up for distribution.

    –Roxanne Bogucka


    Grey Gardens

    Albert and David Maysles 1976 documentary Grey Gardens is an utterly riveting piece of work. Their documentation presents the rare phenomenon of people moving the other direction, that is to say, tumbling down the social ladder from a position of wealth and privilege to squalid poverty. Edie Bouvier Beale was a first cousin to Jackie Kennedy, but she never achieved the much-coveted limelight or the public adulation of her more famous relative. After failing as a model and actress, she returned to live with her mother in what would become their rotting, filthy mansion in the East Hamptons. When the Maysles showed up to film them in the 1970s, the Beales had already been cited for numerous violations by public health officials. Jackie’s generous donation to clean up the mansion saved them from eviction, but looking around the place you start to wonder if maybe she was a little cheap with the clean-up costs. Of course, Edie and her mother seem to openly undermine any efforts to keep the place up. At one point the camera follows Edie as she trudges upstairs into the attic to feed the cats and raccoons, and proceeds to dump a box of kibble and a loaf of Wonder Bread directly onto the floor. The Maysles’ film is more than 20 years old but it retains every bit of spectacle today as it did back then, and along the way dispels the notion that rich people are eccentric; some are just plain nuts.

    –Nancy Semin


    Hell House

    Words can’t describe the respect I have for this director. Despite disagreeing with his subject very strongly, he made a completely objective documentary about Trinity Assembly of God Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. This is the church that created the haunted house filled with "sins" instead of ghouls ’n’ goblins. I also strongly disagree with the subject, but I still felt a new appreciation for them as people.

    –Zack Schenkkan


    Hell House

    A few years back, George Ratliff directed Plutonium Circus, a must-see documentary about the Pantex plutonium facility near his hometown of Amarillo, Texas. It was a marvel of gentle comedy and serious politics. Now he’s back, and he’s still got a great touch with contentious material. His topic this time is a Halloween horror project put on by a church in Cedar Hill, Texas, that features dramatic vignettes on the evils of raves, drugs, the occult, underage drinking, and abortion as seen from the evangelical Christian perspective. Ratliff got lucky with an incredible amount of access to the planning committee’s meetings and to the household of a family deeply involved in Hell House. The movie spends about equal time on the run-up to opening night and the actual presentation.

    Ratliff has worked a minor miracle in Hell House. He clearly has a point of view; shrewdly, he does nothing to obscure that fact. He just as shrewdly does nothing to ridicule his subjects, avoiding the temptation to play gotcha. So do these Assembly of God church members look ridiculous? Sometimes, but no more, on average, than anyone else who has a camera shoved in his or her face. The important thing here is that when anyone does look ridiculous–be it the church members or the foul-mouthed Hell House visitors who berate them–Ratliff just lets it happen without editing or camera tricks that indicate what you’re supposed to think about what you see and hear. Graceful handling of difficult subject matter, and the proof is in the pudding: The church members liked the documentary and an audience full of SXSW viewers (most clearly far from evangelical in their views) did too. Find it, somehow, and watch it. And tell your friends.

    –Roxanne Bogucka


    Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew

    Now well into his seventies, jazz vocal stylist Jimmy Scott is enjoying a comeback of sorts, thanks in no small part to the efforts of fans like Director Matthew Buzzell. Scott enjoyed a brief spell of success in the 1940s, but then his life took one of those paths that leads to some formerly famous personage being found working as a cab dispatcher or waitress. How do you go from having it to losing it to having it again? And how would you feel about having "it" again? Buzzell and crew followed Scott on a tour of Japan, where the audiences’ adulation made it clear that they’ve never forgotten him, even if his home country has. More importantly, Buzzell introduces us to Scott’s family and explores Scott’s early life. Scott, who makes clear that, though he loves to perform and record, he can take it or leave it, tells us what’s really important. I’d never heard the man sing before seeing this movie, and frankly I’m not moved to hear more, but I was moved to want to know more about Jimmy Scott, human being.

    –Roxanne Bogucka


    Journeys with George

    A funny and disturbing home-movie about TV journalist Alexandra Pelosis experience covering George W. Bushs 2000 presidential campaign from inside "the bubble" that isolates the press from almost all non-Dubya contact. The film comes off as mostly light and wacky, with much darker subtext about our political system and the media’s relationship to it. Worth seeing for Bush lovers and haters alike, the Republicans laughed just as hard and at the same things I did (and Texas Governor Rick Perry was one of them).

    –Reed Oliver


    Last Party 2000

    If, during the year 2000 election cycle, you weren’t putting out a lot of effort to find out what the networks weren’t reporting, Donovan Leitch and Rebecca Chaiklins Last Party 2000 may be an eye-opener about the striking similarities between the GOP and Democrats and the variety of issues being pushed by other organizations that were not addressed by either party. For involved liberals, this will seem like more of a review than a revelation, but it’s fun to watch Phillip Seymour Hoffman make his way from convention to protest to shadow convention. Harder hitting than the similarly themed Journeys With George, Last Party 2000 offers a message of hope for our democracy, despite the debacle of the presidential election.

    –Reed Oliver


    Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventures in Plastic

    Phranc, the self-proclaimed Jewish lesbian folksinging Tupperware lady who once toured with The Smiths, comes to life in this fun and heartfelt documentary by Lisa Udelson. The wackiness is obvious, but the struggles top-selling Phranc faces in the traditional, all-female world of Tupperware ladies bring to light the prejudice and ignorance that separates her from her fellow saleswomen. Lifetime Guarantee is a delightful hour filled with Phranc’s catchy music (I can’t get "Tupperware Lady" out of my head).

    –Reed Oliver


    Mai’s America

    Marlo Porass documentary, Mai’s America, traces roughly two years in the life of an exchange student from Hanoi who gets placed in small-town Mississippi. This is one incredible fish-out-of-water story, with so very many culture shocks that you’d swear it was scripted. Unfortunately there’s something contrived-feeling about this film, even though Poras really was simply following Mai. Part of it is the only-in-real-life implausible situations and characters. One of her first U.S. outings is to a gay bar, where Mai meets Christie/Chris, a drag queen who becomes her closest friend in America, and who eventually puts down his mascara and takes up religion. Her initial host family is Southern Gothic, and she moves in with a younger family that’s a better fit–or at least it seems that way at first.

    Mai’s America is the kind of filmmaking that really makes you think about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The effects on Mai of being observed seemed pretty clear as I watched, but her candor and utter lack of reserve kept me watching–and occasionally squirming in sympathetic embarrassment.

    – Roxanne Bogucka


    OT: Our Town

    Scott Hamilton Kennedys very interesting and inspiring story of 24 Compton kids putting on a play at their high school when one hasn’t been made there in 21 years. The kids are awesome in their complexity and humor. Top notch.

    – Zack Schenkkan


    Owned

    What is a hacker, and should I honor or fear them? Those are the issues tackled by this fascinating documentary by Jennifer Read about what the mostly male population obsessed with taking things apart, be they mechanical or coded, has been up to the last thirty years. Both a history and exploration of present-day hacking, Owned (what they call a hacked website) provides a window into the sub-culture corporations and the government have been vilifying for years. Although it may be a turn-off for technophobes, Owned gives a human face to hacking, which may be the most subversive act of all.

    –Reed Oliver


    People Like Us:
    Social Class In America

    Showing just once at SXSW was the PBS documentary feature People Like Us: Social Class In America. Referring to social class as the "800-pound gorilla in the living room that everyone is trying to ignore," the directors present a fascinating look at the subtle ways class shapes our daily interactions. They interview dozens of people who are either completely aware of their social class or painfully oblivious. Regardless of one’s true social class, most people position themselves in the middle, and most people are forever attempting to better themselves, though in reality class fluidity is rarely achieved.

    –Nancy Semin


    Spellbound

    My favorite film of the festival, hands down, Jeff Blitzs Spellbound follows eight participants in the National Spelling Bee. Doesn’t sound compelling? Prepare to be charmed and moved by this in-depth look into the young spellers and their families, including all of the drama of rounds of elimination in the final competition. See it. Take the family. You’ll be talking about it for d-a-y-s.

    –Reed Oliver


    Spellbound

    Recommended as his favorite film earlier in the day by John Sayles, Spellbound lived up to its advance press and then some, winning a SXSW Best Documentary award. Director Jeff Blitz followed eight kids who were contestants in the National Spelling Bee, from the hometown victories that launched them to the two-day orthography throwdown in D.C. His personable, engaging portraits of normal kids who happen to have an undervalued talent made them and their aspirations very sympathetic and real. Now here is a documentary for persons of all tastes. In his first feature-length film, Blitz has worked the storytelling magic that makes for compelling viewing.The topic is not controversial. The participants aren’t glamorous. Yet you won’t be able to take your eyes off the screen. Despite revealing the winner early in the game, Blitz’s team (thanks to the mad editing skills of Yana Gorskaya) keeps up a level of suspense that becomes almost unbearable as you get more and more emotionally involved with these smart kids. Spellbound is aptly named.

    –Roxanne Bogucka


    Tribute

    Both Tribute and Ace’s High, the short that preceded it, explore the bizarre world of tribute bands: bands that recreate the performances of bands such as Queen, Journey, and the Monkees. The gritty images in Ace’s High depict the band of the same name, who all dress as Ace Frehley of KISS and play his songs exclusively, while Kris Curry and Rich Foxs Tribute follows six bands over several years. Who knew that spending an hour and a half with these maniacs would rock so hard? Both funny and engaging as we share the tribulations of the bands and the fans who love them, Tribute ennobles this truly silly group of people.

    –Reed Oliver


    Tribute

    Don’t call them cover bands. I did, and was immediately corrected by co-director and editor Rich Fox. Some join because they’ve learned that making a living as a carbon copy of a popular band with a built-in fan base is just a hell of a lot easier than making it with their own original material. Some people join tribute bands because they’re uber-fans of some group. Watching Gigantic, the They Might Be Giants movie, was such an emotional excitement that I actually teared up a time or two. I found out later that my seatmate did too. I would have cause to reflect on this level of fannish involvement a couple of days later, when watching Tribute a vastly entertaining documentary.

    –Roxanne Bogucka


    You See Me Laughin’

    Yet another set of cameras trained on the ever-fascinating artists of Fat Possum Records in director Mandy Steins documentary featuring R.L. Burnside, T-Model Ford, Cedell Davis, and Junior Kimbrough, and two of their fans, Bono and Iggy Pop. You’d think that lives that are the real deal of backwoods Mississippi blues would provide can’t-miss material, but You See Me Laughin’ is fairly pallid. Talking-head interviews, some front-porch playing, and a lot of R.L. Burnside tour footage just do not set it off any more than Hill Stomp Holler, which covered the same material just as unsuccessfully a couple of years ago. Maybe it’s asking too much, but surely a movie about these guys, with its combined sound and visuals, should at least come close to providing the electrifying effect I get just from listening to their music on a CD. Swing and a miss.

    – Roxanne Bogucka


    Mike Doughty



    none now
    -------


    South By Southwest 2014
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