Tag Archives: documentaries

Holy Sanctimony

God & Country

by George Wolf

When Rob Schenck was a young pastor, he was told never to prepare a sermon without consulting the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel.

Years later, Schenck learned that Kittel was also the man who gave Hitler a Christian blessing for his Final Solution.

“That was an eye opener,” Schenck admits. The point—that there is no limit to what radical Christianity can be used to justify—is what drives God & Country. And much of the film’s success comes from how it combats that fanaticism with a measured, confident deconstruction.

Director Dan Partland doesn’t insert himself into the conversation, but has no problem crafting a spirited one. Yes, he has a clear agenda, but includes enough footage from news reports, political speeches and televangelist messaging that the film’s worldview becomes the “other side” getting a chance to be heard.

Partland relies on historians, authors, and theologians to trace the rise of Christian Nationalism, it’s deviation from actual Christian teachings, the quest for power over values that earns a rebranding as “White Religious Nationalism,” and how the true believers have been convinced that America has a God-ordained role in human history.

And if democracy gets in the way? See January 6th, 2021.

The attack on the Capitol is what bookends the film, and in between, Partland actually elicits sympathy for the attackers, who have been fed a calculated diet of lies, fear and outrage. The resulting echo chamber creates an alternative reality bubble, one that was always designed to burst.

If you noticed the proudly theocratic ruling from the Alabama Supreme Court last week, you know that the threat to democracy is only becoming more dangerous. Partland makes it clear that the biggest hope is awareness, so that those led astray by the fervor (like Schenck) can experience a new awakening.

Christian Nationalism has nothing to do with Christianity. And God & Country finds a useful tone between sermonizing and condescension that can help us see that light.

Doing His Research


by George Wolf

“Science can only advance when you do things that other people say can’t be done.”

So says climate scientist Lonnie Thompson, PhD, and he should know. He’s been walking the walk for decades, and Canary finds him finally ready to start talking the talk.

And yes, the title does refer to the “canary in a coal mine” metaphor, but directors Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest wisely spend half of the film’s running time on an extended introduction to a man who’s been described as “the closest living thing to Indiana Jones.”

Growing up poor in West Virginia mining county, Lonnie took his scientific mind to Ohio State University to explore coal geology. But a research job studying glaciers changed the course of his life, and ultimately, the very nature of climate research.

Since 1989, Lonnie and his wife Ellen Mosely-Thompson, PhD, have run OSU’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, spearheading groundbreaking work that earned Lonnie a National Medal of Science.

Lonnie’s background and achievements are extraordinary, as O’Malley and Rivest show us a man that none but the most rabid ideologue could ever accuse of grandstanding. His only agenda is scientific fact. But after decades of climbing mountains, drilling into previously unexplored ice caps and collecting indispensable data on the effects of climate change, Lonnie had to face some colder, harder facts.

“What do you not see? Why the disbelief?”

Though he long believed his work would speak for itself, and that the different sides of the political spectrum could “debate solutions, but accept the facts,” Lonnie saw things begin to change in the early 2000s. Canary connects some dots of the misinformation campaign that turned the tide, with evidence of some high-profile politicians quickly shifting their stances.

Lonnie came to accept how hard people will fight back against a forced change in lifestyle, and we see that play out with irony in his own home. Lonnie himself ignored the science of his doctor’s advice and kept climbing until it nearly killed him.

And now, as he sees global CO2 levels still rising, Lonnie realizes his time may best be spent not by collecting another ice core, but by spreading the word of what a lifetime of “doing his research” has revealed.

The film is an awe-inspiring and important step on that journey. Lonnie still believes that if humans can cause a problem, then humans can also solve that problem. And Canary‘s biggest success comes from giving you no reason to doubt the man, even if you want to.

Fins to the Left, Fins to the Right


by George Wolf

How much do we love Sharks?

Mother’s only get one day, but it’s Shark Week.

And from Megs to ‘Nados to super sharks eating Samuel L. Jackson in the middle of a Samuel L. Jackson speech, we clearly cannot get enough shark movies.

Shudder’s Sharksploitation takes a…wait for it…deep dive into the titular subgenre, building a scattershot timeline for how sharks have been depicted in cinema, both BJ (before Jaws) and AJ (after Jaws.)

First-time director Stephen Scarlata rolls out a respectable array of film historians and pop culture commentators, interspersing the requisite film clips, and sometimes bunching several together via split screens.

Scarlata doesn’t always follow a strict chronology, which can be a bit distracting as the approach sometimes groups the shark films by era, and other times by a similar theme.

Still, there is some solid info here, such as the progression of sharks being held as Gods in the 1931 Murnau film Tabu, to being held by evil geniuses in Bond films, to being hunted for harassing a small New England town over 4th of July weekend.

And, of course, once Jaws practically invented the “blockbuster” as we know it, shark mania was cranked up to eleven while stoking a fear that wasn’t exactly based on fact. Jaws author Peter Benchley came to regret this, and the film is careful to show how he later would devote his time and energy to ocean conservation.

But in the decades since, the laws of shark physics (“shar-sics”!) have been willingly ignored by shark films, and Scarlata achieves a fun sense of mischief by often following a film synopsis with a quick cut to an increasingly exasperated marine biologist.

There’s also an enlightening and funny look behind that infamous line from Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, a revisit to the influx of sharks on 70s TV (lookin’ at you, Fonzie), and a nod to the relative “cooling off” period before an eventual rebirth via 1999’s Deep Blue Sea and the emergence of SyFy channel originals

But along with the low-budget “mockbusters” of The Asylum and the intentional ridiculousness of the Sharknado franchise, Scarlata reminds us that there are more recent entries (Open Water, The Shallows) that found ways to thrill with new rules for an old game.

The film’s a little rough around the edges, and it suffers from a wandering nature that can seem like treading water, but Sharksploitation is an entertaining trip through the history of a beloved subgenre. And ultimately, it feels both welcome and overdue.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to shop for Mom’s Shark Week gift.

The Future Is Now

Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie

by George Wolf

For seven years after his initial diagnosis at the age of 29, Michael J. Fox was committed to hiding the signs of Parkinson’s disease.

He’s not at all interested in hiding anymore, and the inviting nature of his candor is a major reason why Apple TV’s Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie connects on such a warmly human level.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. Since he rocketed to sitcom fame with Family Ties in the 1980s, Fox has remained a relentlessly likable guy. Short of stature but long on charm and comic timing, Fox hit superstardom with 85’s Back to the Future, then navigated the hits and misses to remain a staple of the big and small screen for decades.

Director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman) anchors the film via his Q&A session with Fox, bringing life to the life story with a mix of subtle recreations and nimble editing.

As Fox reflects on his path to the Big Time, editor Michael Harte weaves in carefully selected scenes from Fox’s TV, movie and talk show work that illustrate the anecdotes with entertaining precision. It’s all a slick counterpoint to the reality of Fox’s health, which is acknowledged from the film’s opening minutes, when Fox tells of waking up with a trembling pinky and a “message from the future.”

His present now includes frequent physical therapy sessions, as well as numerous falls and injuries, but he accepts it with grace and self-effacing humor (which includes a priceless bit from an appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm).

Fox also recounts his love story with wife Tracy Pollan, and the slices of his current home life with Tracy and their children make it easier to understand Fox’s eternally grateful attitude about how his life has turned out.

Fox has no use for pity. And he makes sure that your time spent with A Michael J. Fox Movie will only be inspiring and uplifting.

Fight the Team

Imagining the Indian: The Fight Against Native American Mascoting

by George Wolf

“We’ve been used for entertainment for so long, most Americans don’t even question it.”

Imagining the Indian is a documentary with a clear agenda and a specific target audience. It isn’t really interested in preaching to the choir, and it seems to realize there are those on the opposite side who view even broaching the subject as threatening some God-given right to tell others how to feel.

But in the middle, there’s a group that may indeed have never questioned why Native American team names and mascots need to be changed.

Imaging the Indian makes a clear and very convincing case.

In short, “It’s either racist or it’s not.” True enough, but directors Aviva Kempner and Ben West follow that early declaration with multiple historical and uniquely personal perspectives that repeatedly drive the point home.

Like Kempner’s 2019 doc The Spy Behind Home Plate, the approach is far from stylish, but heavy on substantial persuasion, usually from those most directly affected by the demeaning mascots, team names and group cheers.

While veteran sports journalist (and co-producer) Kevin Blackistone finds no shortage of sports fans who dig in their cleats and yell “It’s just a name!,” we see a series of Native Americans who have receipts. And they say it honors nothing but a continued “white fantasy” of a people swept out of the way for hundreds of years.

“I’m so past arguing. This is life and death for us.”

Really? Life or death? Yes, expect more receipts.

Kempner and West also highlight the leadership of Native American activist (and 2014 Medal of Freedom winner) Suzan Shown Harjo, and offer solid rebuttals to the frequent charges of “erasing history” and those misleading polls which seem to suggest Native American support for the controversial mascots.

I’m actually writing this review while a Cleveland Guardian’s game plays in the other room. And while it’s encouraging to note that the Cleveland Indians/Chief Wahoo die-hards are becoming less and less vocal, I know first hand that plenty still proudly resist the name change as some heroic stand against “wokeness.”

But with the Washington football team finally ditching “Redskins” (a name singled out as the most blatantly offensive of all), progress is being made, which is why it may be the most opportune time for Imaging the Indian to get this wider release.

Can a documentary actually be the tipping point for a new conventional wisdom, and a catalyst for permanent change?

Ask Sea World.

Press To Play

Kubrick by Kubrick

by George Wolf

Stanley Kubrick gave so few interviews in his lifetime that an early striking moment in Gregory Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick comes the first time you hear his voice.

It doesn’t really seem to fit, until you remember Kubrick wasn’t French or British, he was a native New Yorker. And he had a clear penchant for precise, matter-of-fact observations.

Film critic Michel Ciment was lucky enough to get some of those thoughts on tape over the course of several years, and Monro surrounds highlights of those cassette recordings with still photos, movie clips, and interviews with various cast and crew from Kubrick’s 13 movies.

Monro anchors the film with a recreation of the hotel suite from 2001. This one is adorned with mementos from Kubrick’s catalogue, which Monro spotlights as Ciment and Kubrick move their conversations from film to film.

Obviously, film fans will get critical insight into Kubrick’s mindset and interpretations of the stories he told (horror fans may especially take note of his far-from-the-rabbit-hole thoughts on The Shining).

But however much time Ciment spent with Kubrick, it seems Monro only found enough usable material for a heavily padded, barely one-hour running time, which leaves plenty unsaid. It’s certainly great to see all the classic clips from Kubrick’s films, but after actors such as Jack Nicholson, Malcolm McDowell, Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangleove) and Marisa Berenson (Barry Lyndon) comment on Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism, you wait for reactions from the man himself that never come.

Maybe beggars like us can’t be choosers, and there are fascinating answers from Kubrick here, chief among them some suddenly prescient thoughts on HAL’s A.I. awareness. Kubrick by Kubrick is the rare chance to get inside the mind of a guarded legend, and even when it leaves you wanting more, that somehow feels like an ending he had planned all along.

Community of Air

All That Breathes

by George Wolf

It’s been a few hundred years since Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers,” but the Oscar-nominated All That Breathes shows there are at least two people in the world who still believe it.

For the past twenty years, as the city of Delhi has deteriorated around them, brothers Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad have devoted their lives to the rescue of the Black Kite, a bird they say can “swim, like a lazy dot in the sky.”

We witness that swimming in the film’s opening minutes, just one of the countless images that director Shaunak Sen presents with a bittersweet majesty. Aided by stellar craftsmanship from Ben Bernhard’s cinematography team and editors Charlotte Munch Bentsen and Vedant Joshi, Sen drives home the devastating effects of climate change and pollution with an ironically gorgeous display of shot-making.

Sen’s approach is immersive from the start, letting quiet conversations and sobering landscapes outline the roadblocks to the brothers’ commitment. But in the midst of their search for the funds to open a true rescue hospital, Saud and Nadeem give voice to concerns of rising societal fractures, including the marginalizing of Muslims and outbreaks of street violence.

Sen weaves these themes together with grace and restraint, letting the focus at work in this basement mission of mercy speak in universal terms. The belief that “Delhi is a gaping wound, and we are just a Band Aid” reflects the unyielding hope that drives the two brothers. We share our “community of air” with every living thing that relies on it. And as long as there is value given to All That Breathes, then all cannot truly be lost.

Sole Man

Salvatore: Shoemaker of Dreams

by George Wolf

Have you ever seen a high-end shoe being assembled?

Director Luca Guadagnino makes it an oddly transfixing experience in the opening moments of Salvatore, Shoemaker of Dreams. We watch the construction silently, priming us for Salvatore Farragamo’s proud admission.

“I love feet, they talk to me.”

Guadagnino (Bones and All, Call Me By Your Name, Suspiria) may not have much audio or video of the celebrated shoemaker to help tell his story, but what he has is used wisely. Hearing from the actual Salvatore provides the needed personal insight to support the remembrances from family and friends, still photos, and narration from Michael Stuhlbarg.

And even if don’t share Salvatore’s skill as a foot whisperer, his is a truly compelling story of determination, celebrity and arch support.

Salvatore opened his first shop in his native Italy at the age of 12. He came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1915, settled in Santa Barbara, California and soon was outfitting the most famous feet in silent films. When the film business moved to Hollywood, so did Salvatore, also finding time to study anatomy at USC so he might understand how shoes could be made more comfortable.

“Fashion with comfort, that’s what I give.”

He applied for thousands of patents, got rich, went bankrupt and got rich again, forever changing society’s expectations of footwear style and comfort in the process.

Guadagnino’s inclusion of Martin Scorsese in the interview parade only underscores how Salvatore’s journey unveils like a classic American drama. It becomes a sprawling family legacy built on immigration, dreams and a solemn vow to never give up.

Shoemaker of Dreams is a fitting tribute to the fascinating life of a man ahead of his time. And while the focus on the earlier part of Salvatore’s story is more inherently interesting, Guadagnino crafts a sweet warmth for the film’s final act, complete with a surprise chef’s kiss.

The closing moments find Guadagnino collaborating with stop-motion animator Pes for a mesmerizing “shoe ballet” that sits perfectly poles apart from the no-frills intro.

These dancing shoes rival the synchronized shopping in White Noise for can’t-look-away sequence of the year, so keep your own feet right where they and don’t miss it.

Sound + Vision

Moonage Daydream

by George Wolf

Longtime David Bowie fans know of his early fondness for the “cut up” method to writing songs – literally cutting up lines of written lyrics and then shifting them around in search of more enigmatic creations.

Director Brett Morgen takes a similar approach to telling Bowie’s story in Moonage Daydream, a completely intoxicating documentary that immerses you in the legendary artist’s iconic mystique and ambitious creative process.

Bowie’s estate gifted Morgen with the key to the archives, and the celebrated documentarian (The Kid Stays in the Picture, Jane, Cobain: Montage of Heck) pored through the thousands of hours of footage for moments that could stand on their own while serving a greater narrative. The result is a glorious explosion of sound and vision, revealing Morgen’s choice to trust himself as film editor was also a damn good one.

Anchored by atmospheric bookends that evoke Bowie’s image as the ethereal “man who fell to Earth,” Morgen unleashes a barrage of concert sequences, still photos and interviews clips, interspersed with bits of old movies, news reports and pop culture references. It’s a luscious and cinematic (especially in IMAX) mashup, and one that slowly unveils a subtle but purposeful roadmap.

The music is thrilling and visceral, of course, but the interview footage reveals Bowie to be tremendously inquisitive and philosophical. We see him as a truly gifted artist who felt satisfaction when he “worked well,” but apprehension with new projects (such as painting) that didn’t yet meet his standards.

At first, Morgen’s approach may seem scattershot, as he appears more concerned with blowing our minds than chronological purity. But what becomes clear is that Morgen’s commitment leans toward grouping slices of Bowie’s life that speak to who he was (i.e. juxtaposing a “Rock and Roll Suicide” performance from the 70s with comments about his “sellout” 80s period). And by the time Bowie’s looking back fondly on his first meeting with wife Iman, an appropriate and touching timeline has emerged.

Though the last years of Bowie’s life are skirted just a bit, Moonage Daydream is like no music biography that you’ve ever seen. It’s a risky, daring and defiant experience, which is exactly the kind of film David Bowie deserves. Expect two hours and fifteen minutes of head-spinning fascination, and a sense that you’ve gotten closer to one Starman than you ever felt possible.

The Work of Hope

Kaepernick & America

by George Wolf

I’ve been a fan of the San Francisco 49ers for about fifty years, so I had a Colin Kaepernick jersey long before he started taking a knee during the national anthem.

And when I continued to proudly wear that jersey, I quickly learned how effectively Kaepernick’s peaceful protest had been twisted into hateful knots of white grievance.

In Kaepernick & America, directors Ross Hockrow and Tommy Walker revisit the protest’s timeline with insight and proficiency. But the subtle power of their documentary comes from its patience in deconstructing how Kaepernick’s true motives were distorted to fuel a racist narrative and a divisive election year.

And for those who don’t know Kaepernick’s personal history, Hockrow and Walker wisely begin with his upbringing as a trans-racial adoptee, and then follow his journey to NFL stardom, to falling one play short of winning Super Bowl forty-seven, to essentially being kicked out of the league.

It’s then that the film gives Kaepernick’s worldview a more distinct social and political context through archival footage and interview commentary (including CNN’s Don Lemon, an executive producer on the film).

With the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement after the 2014 death of Michael Brown, Kaepernick sought to speak out against police brutality in America. His silent act of social disobedience eventually made news, and activist DeRay McKesson becomes instrumental to the film’s success at revealing the historical nature of the resulting uproar.

Opposing views are supplied by anti-Kaepernick protesters and political candidates of the time, effectively rebutted by former U.S. Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer. Though Kaepernick’s protest began as a sit-down, he switched to kneeling after Boyer’s advice on a more respectful action. As we revisit the accusations and troop-shaming that were aimed at Kaepernick, Boyer’s recollections are a vivid reminder about just who was interested in thoughtful dialog amid conflict.

More concerned with correcting the record than breaking new ground, Kaepernick & America seems graceful and unassuming when placed against the vitriol spurred by the taking of a knee. But the film reminds us that protest is “the work of hope,” and ultimately looks toward a future of redemption for Kaepernick, and healing for a nation.