Movies »Sherman’s March

directed by Ross McElwee (1986)

Ross McElwee’s 80’s classic documentary, Sherman’s March, is from a clearly pre-realty show time, where the interview subjects are unconcerned with the end result of their musings and are completely unbridled when discussing everything from cellulite exercises, Tarzan fantasies, plans for finding love with Burt Reynolds, fanny tucks, and isolationist militia goals. In many ways, the movies is the greatest fumble, or at least derailed intention put to film. Originally planning to follow the path of the infamously brutal march of General William Tecumseh Sherman through the South during the Civil War which left the land and its people completely devastated. Instead, McElwee meets and falls haplessly infatuated with a succession of unusual Southern women.

It’s a very personal documentary and that can often, almost always be tough to pull off without seeming navel gazing and obnoxiously self absorbed. This moving sometimes toes the line but manages to remain absorbing because of the ease and comfort of it all: whether pontificating on the horrors of war, or wondering why his relationships have failed. He manages to capture quiet magical scenes of real life in all it’s strangeness without ever seeming forced or boring (even at a long, very meandering run time of over two and a half hours).

It took years for the excellent Grey Gardens to gain popular with the educated movie loving masses (I know I pushed it on people for years) and I hope this quirky gem is next on the list.

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Posted on April 25, 2010

TV Shows »Life

on Discovery

Like the producer’s other show, Planet Earth, Life is awe inspiring and fantastic. But, and I’m probably going to get run down by one of her personal drivers for saying this, Oprah does not posses what one would call a melodious voice.

Chosen strictly for her status as confoundedly being one of the famous people on earth, she’s just not the exact person I would have chosen to describe verbally the wonders of animal life. But I’m sure I’ll get the British narrated ones on DVD, so I’ll move past this blunder.

Divided into species, each hour-long episode is transporting and features hunting, mating rituals, escape tactics and more that have never been captured on film before. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Posted on April 11, 2010

Movies »Keep the River On Your Right

directed by David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro (2001)

Tobias Schneebaum, the charming subject of Keep The River on Your Right, is a fascinating man full of fascinating stories to tell that work much in the favor of filmmakers whose techniques are (at best) uneven and (at worst) invasive, unnecessary and annoying; but I suppose even fish-eye lenses can be overlooked when the story is this compelling. Schneebaum, once a respected New York painter, set off to the wilds of New Guinea and Peru in his younger days to come back with stories of foreign customs (including male sexual partners, which astounded the public in the 1960s), frightening raids, and cannibalism – which is by far the most sensational and most exploited of his adventures; adventures he shared with the world through several publications and garnered Schneebaum both respect and awe.

The movie catches up with the Schneebaum, now making his living as a speaker on expensive tribal cruise ships, as he very reluctantly journeys back to the people and places he once adventured in. He meets an old lover, climbs ruins, and finally rediscovers the people of Peru that he once lived with for months as a younger man. While one might wonder what a fine film it could have made in better hands (Herzog perhaps) it’s a great tale and can be seen instantly on Netflix on demand.

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Posted on March 21, 2010

Movies »The September Issue

directed by R.J. Cutler (2009)

The September Issue is a fairly straight-forward documentary that offers an exclusive peek into the creation of Vogue’s biggest, most important and most popular issue, yet still manages to feel a bit remote and arm’s length. The film focuses primarily on the tight-mouthed and crossed-hand critiques (which I seldom agreed with) of Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and, at the other end of the spectrum, the spirited work and luminous presence of Creative Director Grace Coddington. And while you can almost glimpse the actual woman behind the severe haircut when she reveals that she’s pretty much the family’s frivolous black sheep and hangs out with her daughter (who has no apparent interest in following on her mother’s footsteps), Wintour remains as aloof as you’d expect – though not quite the industry monster Meryl Streep portrayed he as (but not quite as redeemable, either).

Aside from coming off dismissive and ice cold, her most monstrous deeds are, in my opinion, touted throughout the film as her greatest achievements: bringing back fur and putting celebrities on the covers of fashion magazines. Quite frankly, I am not impressed – particularly with the latter. It was tough to watch this epic fashion tome built around the mediocre starlet that is Sienna Miller, especially when the more adventurous Italian Vogue broke ground with their all Black issue the same year and pictured Agyness Deyn with soldiers on their September issue… but I’m digressing into my own qualms with the publication (which I stopped subscribing to years ago in protest of Jennifer Aniston’s 14th cover story).

While the September Issue is an obvious must-see for fashion fans, those of you who have never been inclined to pick up an issue of Vogue will still find it rather amusing (to borrow from Wintour’s lexicon). It’s at its best when Coddington, who is this week’s style icon as well as the author of this week’s book, is on-screen.

Click here for the rest of The September Issue

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Posted on February 21, 2010

Movies »Pumping Iron

pumping_irondirected by George Butler and Robert Fiore (1976)

It’s always been hard for me to believe that Pumping Iron is a great movie, not just as a piece of bizarro kitsch, but a respected documentary that  frequently tops reasonable peoples’ lists of their favorite films… until I watched it, of course. The film, set during and before the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition in South Africa, follows the king of the sport, Aaanold as well as his upstart competition, a then sweet and dopey kid named Lou Ferrigno, his friend and fellow champion, Franco Columbo and other lesser known men striving to achieve success in the unique world of body building.

The movie shares much with some of my favorite documentaries: the well renowned The King of Kong and the criminally forgotten Derby in that it’s an intimate portrait of a small subculture that is strange to most of us; it’s always fascinating to get into the minds of people obsessed with what they love.

It’s a well made piece of vérité that’s infinitely quotable:

“It’s like I’m cumming all the time” – Arnold

“I’m the kind of person that’s like the kind of dog that’s going to bite back” – Mike Katz

“I was always dreaming about powerful people – dictators and things like that” – Arnold

“Milk is for babies. When you grow up you drink beer” – Arnold

After years of being unavailable, the DVD can now be widely purchased, so do enjoy!

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Posted on January 10, 2010

Movies »Valentino: The Last Emperor

valentino-the-last-emperordirected by Matt Tyrnauer (2009)

Valentino: The Last Emperor is beautiful, inspiring, and as touching as it is uplifting. The film captures the process and excitement behind the couturier business as well as the glamour of the lives of those involved. The emotion comes not only from impeccable hand made gowns, but particularly from the enviable love and business partnership between Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti who have been weathering the changes in trends and making women look beautiful together for 45 years.

Captured among these often exhilarating images, appropriately set to the score of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, is the designer’s swan song – and an elaborate, over the top decadent one at that. For his 45th anniversary there are parties on top of parties, gallery shows, and runway presentations fit for a king… or an emperor.

One is left in awe of his accomplishments and saddened by the end of an art form. His is truly an extraordinary life, the kind of magical and seemingly fictional life of a modern aristocrat, and being permitted a peek inside it is amazing.; and it may just bring you to tears.

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Posted on November 22, 2009

Movies »Anvil – The Story of Anvil

Heartwarming, heartbreaking, humbling and uplifting; these are not exactly the words I expected to use when describing Sacha Gervasi's 2008 documentary Anvil: The Story of Anvil, an intimate portrait of the core members (now in their 50s) of a long-lived but commercially unsuccessful heavy metal band… And I certainly didn't expect to cry; but cry I did, profusely enough that I couldn't even pretend that there was something in my eye.

If you ever want a portrait of perseverance and inexhaustible optimism, you needn't look further than Lips Kudlow, the band's lead singer, who, along with his lifelong friend drummer Robb Reiner, have stayed together to play in small clubs, go on ramshackle European tours, and work full time at blue collar dead end jobs to make ends meet.

Comparisons to Spinal Tap are inevitable, but these are real people in real situations. Once metal gods, Anvil inspired numerous mega bands like Guns 'N Roses, Anthrax, and Slayer but, unlike those bands who all went on to make millions, Lips and Robb struggle to live the dream daily. While it's sad at times, it's an overwhelmingly affectionate portrait that doesn't judge, poke fun, or humiliate.

If you want to feel the power of Metal on Metal and the triumph of the human spirit, watch it!

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Posted on October 12, 2009

TV Shows »Brick City

brick cityHave you heard about the Newark airport? It's like the Newark of airports! That's the kind of joke that the optimistic and inspiring mayor of the city, Cory Booker would like to see fade away. Once a thriving community, Newark has become a symbol of crime, drugs, and everything people once feared about the “inner city”. To see the real life struggle to turn that around is harrowing, uplifting, heartbreaking, and intense.

The documentary series Brick City is definitely going to be touted as a real life version of The Wire and the similarities seem intentional on the part of the makers (including producer? Forest Whtiacker). Each segment begins with a quote from one of the main characters and every aspect of the city is explored – from politics, schools, families, and police.

While it may seem too close a structure to the popular fictional series, I think it was wise for the filmmakers to structure this in a familiar way. Looking at the real life darkness and struggle of such a torn apart area is not always easy and any way the film makers can get our attention is fine with me.

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Posted on September 28, 2009

TV Shows »The Interrogators

As a connoisseur of true crime television shows, I can definitively state that actual footage of under-cover busts, taped conversations, and interrogations are often the best part of any program. Enter The Interrogators, a new show on the Biography channel. Of course it's awesome and of course I love it.? There's an episode On-Demand if you're an NYC-area Time Warner customer, just search it out in the guide.?

There's more on

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Posted on August 17, 2009

Movies »Encounters At the End of the World

Werner Herzog makes it clear early on that Encounters At the End of the World, a chronicle of his trip to the southern most tip of our planet, is not going to be a cuddly exploration of an adorable penguin migration. He's just being honest, this is a Herzog piece through and through and 'cuddly' and 'cute' have no place in this piece. As he ponders the paths people have taken to end up in such a strange land, he reiterates the fact that human beings are bound to become extinct, and when he does finally meet up with a taciturn penguin expert, he immediately asks him if penguins can go insane.

It's a loose and meandering film that treats us to otherworldly views beneath the frozen ocean and up close to totally bizarre amorphous creatures and the wild, Pink-Floyd-like soundscapes of submarine seal communication; we see the strange relics left behind by early explorers under the south pole and Scott's (assiduously) preserved 100 year old tent complete with period provisions like canned elk.

Herzog is most curious about the kind of people that inhabit this remote area and his brief and open conversations are entertaining and often poignant. We meet a linguist on a continent with no languages, a handyman with proud roots and the genetic anomalies of Mayan royalty, and a Russian man so scarred by his escape from a prison camp that he constantly carries with him a backpack that allows him to take off at any minute (it includes a portable raft).

Like all of his work from Grizzly Man to Little Dieter Needs to Fly, from Fitzcarraldo to (BrixPick) Aguirre,?Herzog is profoundly interested in men and women who live in the extremes, often times pushing themselves beyond the limits of society (not just geographically). In Antarctica he finds those characters in spades, but learns more about the beauty of our deep human need to explore, learn, and dream than I think he expected.

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Posted on August 10, 2009

Movies »Jazz on a Summer’s Day

jazz on a summer's dayI put on the 1960 documentary Jazz on a Summer's Day on a recent half day afternoon while Jim was still at work hoping for some pleasant background entertainment as I took care of stuff around the house, but I quickly found myself far more enthralled than I expected – and I even went so far as to pour a smallish glass of wine as this soothing and stunning film washed over me.

Centered at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival and interspersed with the WASPy beauty of a yacht race, the movie is almost without dialogue, except for the the occasional introductions from a radio program and the banter of performers – and what performers they are! From a cooler than cool Thelonious Monk, to a cheery, feather-capped Anita O'Day, from an energetic Chuck Berry to the solemn and powerful Mahalia Jackson, the music will be instantly diggable to any fan of the genre, and possibly even create a few new ones.

Beyond the performances, the style of the film and the subjects are highly inspiring. The director seems to almost know the exact images that would excite the current nostalgic movement: a man gathering old timey bottles, a ragtime band playing on the back of a pickup through the coastal Rhode Island landscape, a woman's perfectly red lips and pony tail – these are the images that can make men who name their babies Miles and open up speakeasy barbershops weep.

It plays like a living, breathing mid-century Sartorialist, and it's little wonder that the pure visual aesthetics (and fashions in particular) are given so much weight once you learn that noted fashion photographer Bert Stern (famous for his intimate shots of Marilyn) is behind the lens. He's just as amazed by Dinah Washington's white silk banded gown as her vocals. Stern's amazing eye, combined with what has to be one of the most impressive lineups in jazz festival history, make this seemingly simple film into an extraordinary experience.

I hope this collection of stills will further inspire you to watch.

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Posted on July 20, 2009

Movies »Harlan County USA

harlan county usaIf you think you have it rough with your job just watch Harlan County, USA and, trust me, you'll realize that you've never worked a hard day in your life. In 1972, coal miners in Kentucky, living in shanties without running water or plumbing, facing the possibility of deadly explosions, slow death from black lung, and a shocking lack of safety and benefits began a thirteen month, bitter and deadly strike. The daring documentarian Barbara Kopple and her crew suffered beatings and guns fired at them to capture the turmoil and drama.

You are unlikely to witness?areal life situation so wrought with tension, (even with the incredible Gimme Shelter and the less incredible house wives tables flipping out there). From murder within the union to murder on the picket lines, these hard working individuals are literally willing to die for their rights and, sadly, do. It's the women, the wives and daughters of the miners who are particularly resilient and fight the most visible battles against the gun wielding strike breakers and scabs.

With images that are both horrific and beautiful and a soundtrack of harrowing local blue grass, often sung by the people on screen, the academy award winning film is more than a political drama about unions, it's a piece of art that makes you question how far you could go and how much you could endure and fight if put in the same situation.

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Posted on June 29, 2009

Movies »Derby

derby documentary

Why do I mention it now?

Because this hard to find gem of a movie is finally available on DVD and can be put on your netflix queue now!

Here's what I said back on

Derby, which I read about in Brix Pick The Scarecrow Movie Guide is not an easy one to find, even Photoplay (see what to do with an hour, below) didn't have it. I finally found it on Just 4 The Hell of It (who were great about quick shipping). Since it's a dub of a video, we scanned the disc quickly before watching, just to see the quality. The first scene we happened upon was of the main subject's brother looking at a Playboy as the subject's wife gets angry with him for hiding her raisins and making her take an extra trip to the grocery store just for a box of raisins, which he hid too. I knew from that small taste that it was going to be an awesome ride–and it really is.

Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of DVD transfer guys, the original sound has not been remastered and a good portion of some scenes are nearly inaudible. It can be frustrating, but with a little patience you'll see an early example of brilliant documentary film making.

The film focuses on Michael Snell, a down and out factory worker in Dayton, Ohio with two kids, a wife, a lazy but fascinating brother, and one big dream: to make it in roller derby. His story is juxtaposed with Charlie O'Connell's, an example of a life truly saved by the sport. He has fans, an adoring beautiful wife, a mansion overlooking Napa Valley, and a proud papa.

Snell's life is not as fantastic, aside for the proud papa who, like everyone else in this movie, is obsessed and fanatical about derby, making the film not only a portrait of another time (the early 1970s), but of another planet where roller derby is the biggest thing in the world. There's a lot of totally watchable derby footage, but the genius of the film is the way director Kaylor lets the story follow whatever happens.

And what happens? Well, aside from the raisins, his brother Butch talks to their friend who just got back from Vietnam about plans to avoid the draft “I'm a lover not a fighter” he says; Snell convinces his manager at the Firestone tire factory that his sunglasses are prescription and refuses to take them off in front of the cameras; a team member from a pro team talks about why he owns a gun (to keep rivals from breaking into his hotel room and attacking him); Snell's best friend, Roger, talks about why he owns a gun (sick of getting beaten up at bars); and, in an amazing scene, Snell and Rogers' wives confront Donna, a neighbor both of their husbands are sleeping with, about her affairs while wearing matching outfits.

Snell is trying to make it to a school in California so he can try out for the teams, but all the audience is sure he succeeds in doing is getting a loan from the bank to buy a motorcycle. Derby is making a small comeback with the suicide girls set, and I really hope this renewed interest might make someone, somewhere re-release this movie and clean up the audio.

Kaylor's work, which predates Errol Morris' by many years, should become a must-see for anyone with an interest in documentary film making. It's too bad there's nothing else on his resume except a couple 80s flicks: Nobody's Perfect starring Chad Lowe; and Carny with Jodie Foster, and Gary Busey (which means I'll obviously be trying to find these as well).

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Posted on June 15, 2009

TV Shows »The Natural History of the Chicken

natural history of the chickenYou may be as surprised that I am recommending something called The Natural History of the Chicken this week as Jim was when I said I wanted to spend the evening watching it, but perhaps you won't be quite as surprised when you learn it was made by Mark Lewis, the same documentarian behind the cult hit Cane Toads. While the film was made in 2001, it feels older in a good way. Rather than adopting the inane tone of most “educational” shows about food (think Unwrapped and Diners, Drive Ins and Dives) it has the look and feel of an older Errol Morris film.

The story of chickens is not told through obnoxious narration but by real people that love the animals. One one lady gave her chicken mouth the beak resuscitation, another writes poetry to her pet chicken after taking a few laps with him in her pool. Lewis has the wisdom (the sadly so many current documentarians have lost) to just let these people talk while offering fun recreations and imagery to go with their stories.

It calls to mind the annual Thanksgiving Poultry Slam on This American Life, and unlike the age old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, we know that it was Ira Glass and team that first appreciated the many stories to be told about our favorite white meat. PBS, whether inspired by the radio show or not, have made a surprisingly touching, hilarious and memorable program. Lucky us, it's available on Netflix on demand, so you can watch it tonight.

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Posted on June 1, 2009

TV Shows »Planet Earth

planet earth complete seriesPlanet Earth can be summed up in just a few sentences, because words would just fail to equal the impact of the program's stunning images.

It is one of the most amazing things you will ever see. It alone is worth buying a Blu-Ray player. It will make you love the world you live in and be fascinated by it.

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Posted on April 20, 2009

Movies »Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens The Maysles bothers document Big Edie and Little Edie, high society drop outs and relatives of Jackie O, as they go to seed in a delapitated mansion overrun by cats and raccoons.
Here's an excerpt:
Big Edie: Oh look that cat's going to the bathroom right behind my portrait.

Little Edie: Oh how awful!

Big Edie: No, I'm glad. I'm glad somebody's going something they want to do!

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Posted on November 28, 2005