Tag Archives: documentary reviews

Dark Night

Surviving Theater 9

by Rachel Willis

Tim McGrath survived the shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. He shares his story in the docudrama, Surviving Theater 9.

McGrath not only wrote and directed but also plays himself in a film that focuses on what transpired before and after the event. Keeping his runtime to a brisk 49 minutes, McGrath narrows his focus to three survivors: himself, a teenager who went to the screening with his brother, and a woman whose brother was killed in the shooting.

The most affecting moments are the scenes that focus on what happens after. Some of it is appalling to consider: a neighbor who accuses a woman of exploiting her brother’s death; a law school committee that listens heartlessly as a student tries to appeal their decision to suspend him; a teacher who doesn’t understand her student just needs a moment alone.

Though the Before moments want to give the audience a chance to get to know these three, perhaps the shortness of the film’s runtime is to blame for the lack of depth. Surviving Theater 9 might have been more poignant if the survivors had been allowed to speak for themselves in a documentary, but you can see that this story might be easier to tell through another person’s point of view.

McGrath might have been wiser to restrict the timeline to a chronological retelling. Instead, he skips from After to Before and back again, creating gaps in the timeline. You’re left wondering about the fate of a cousin who accompanied McGrath to the theater, because it’s hard to recall if he appears in the After sections or only the Before sections.

McGrath’s goals are understandable, but flaws in the filmmaking detract from the experience.

Wisely, McGrath does not focus on the shooting itself. We’re given only minor moments of the chaos and terror that happened inside theater 9 because this isn’t the shooter’s story. Nor is it the story of the event. It’s about the survivors and the story they need to tell.

Still Punk After All These Years

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

by Rachel Willis

Director Celeste Bell helps uncover her mother, X-Ray Spex singer and punk legend Poly Styrene, in the documentary, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché

Co-directed with Paul Sng, Bell dives deep into the circumstances that steered her mother from “an ordinary kid from an ordinary street” to punk rock icon.

Born Marianne Elliott, the alter-ego Poly Styrene came from Elliott’s desire to connect the superfluity of pop stars with the culture’s increasing obsession with disposable commodities.     

Ruth Negga (Passing) lends her voice to read Poly’s diary entries and poems, which helps convey the emotions in the icon’s words. Bell’s own narration, memories of her mother, and a collection of memorabilia help us discover the woman behind the image.

Numerous interviews with rock icons such as Thurston Moore, X-Ray Spex members Lora Logic and Paul Dean, writer Vivien Goldman and others, dig deeper into what Poly stood for as a commentator on the culture.

The documentary maintains a strong emphasis on Poly herself. Interviews happen as voiceovers while images onscreen portray the world in which Poly offered her strongest analysis and criticisms. Footage from concerts and interviews with Poly herself dictate the film’s focus.

However, this is more than a simple rock doc, as the film finds numerous ways to cement Poly’s story as larger commentary on contemporary society. Bruno Wizard lays it out best when he says: “She was a woman of color working with an industry full of middle class men that had it all their own way.” The pressure on Poly, as it is on women (especially women of color), was enormous.

Like many of Poly’s songs, the film illuminates the culture’s uglier realities, including the ways it tries to exclude people like Poly. In many ways, the punk scene was a natural fit, “full of people nobody else wanted.”

As the film dives deeper into Poly’s life story, her struggles with mental health are partially documented. While not the first woman to be misdiagnosed, it’s further critique on the systems in place that frequently fail to help women.

The third act falters as it shifts away from its strongest themes and relies on a more formulaic approach. The overarching criticism is neglected for a timeline of events in Poly’s life.

Despite the disappointing turn, the documentary is a lot like Poly herself: vulnerable, observant, and resilient. Like mother, like daughter one might say.

An Unfinished Life

Salt in My Soul

by Rachel Willis

When she was just three years old, Mallory Smith was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. What transpires in director Will Battersby’s documentary, Salt in My Soul, is a family’s fight for their daughter’s life.

With unfettered access to the family’s home videos, Mallory’s own audio and video recordings, and interviews with those closest to Mallory, Battersby makes us feel like part of a village that nurtures and cares for the girl.

For anyone unfamiliar with cystic fibrosis, or who considers it a “nuisance disease,” as one of Mallory’s coaches did, this documentary is an eye-opener. Mallory’s mother talks of the diagnosis as “receiving a death sentence” at just three years old. The average life expectancy for a person with CF was eighteen years.

But with her attitude of “no pity parties,” Mallory flourishes despite her illness. There are hospital stays, but when healthy, she dates, plays sports, makes time for her friends, all while undergoing intense treatments designed to keep her alive.

However, the reality is that cystic fibrosis is an unforgiving ailment. The result of an inherited, mutated recessive gene, CF primarily targets the lungs, but can affect multiple organ systems and leave people especially susceptible to infections. At the age of nine, Mallory caught a bacterial infection (B. cepacia). Adding insult to injury, B. cepacia is a drug-resistant bacteria that further comprises an already battered body.

Battersby’s documentary evokes numerous emotions. There are moments of optimism mixed with moments of despair. Mallory and her family are candid about their experiences, from fights over treatment options to the heartbreak of a lung transplant that falls through. We’re privy to it all.

Documentaries that look so closely into private struggles can veer toward voyeurism or exploitation, but Battersby manages to make the audience feel like part of the team. It’s hard not to care about Mallory and her family as they exhaust every option. We witness the devastation of a new illness or another hospital stay; we’re elated when a treatment goes well or an experimental drug makes a difference.

Anyone unfamiliar with Mallory’s memoir – published under the same name as the documentary – might not know what to expect. But it’s a chance to pull the curtain back on a part of life many of us never have to see.  

Into the Woods

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror

by Hope Madden

Every so often you come across a movie and think it must have been made specifically for you. In my case, that film is Kier-La Janisse’s 3-hour documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror.

Yes, that does seem like a very big time commitment to folk horror, but Janisse’s film repays your undertaking with not only an incredibly informative documentary but an engaging, creepy and beautifully made film.

Dividing her topic into chapters, Janisse portions out information theme by theme. And while this essay-style documentation is driven by expert commentary, the filmmaker surrounds the scholarly material with beguiling imagery.

Every chapter has its own look and feel, each one opening with an appropriately bewitching bit of rhyme. Then it leads you through a clearly articulated and fairly comprehensive examination of certain moments in folk horror. Janisse opens on the big three, The Unholy Trinity–Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and The Wicker Man—as a way to ease us into the conversation by pinning major themes on well-known films.

She goes on to explore TV and written tales tangentially, though her focus is always primarily on film, taking us from The Wicker Man through Midsommar. In between, she introduces dozens of underseen films and traces not only the history of folk horror but the societal anxieties that these films represent.

And while many may think mainly of British films of the 1960s and 70s for this category, Janisse presents an intriguing global history that unveils universal primal preoccupations from England to Argentina, the US to Lapland and beyond.

Dry as that may sound, between the snippets of the movies themselves and the fluid, often creepy presentation, Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched becomes as transfixing a film as those it dissects. And it digs deep, into obscure titles new and old. Border! White Reindeer! Onibaba! Viy! Prevenge!

Bonus: You can find a gorgeous array of folk horror streaming on Shudder this month, including The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw and Witchfinder General.

There are so many, you can’t blame even a 3-hour film for leaving some out. Here are a few masterpieces glimpsed but not discussed and well worth your time:

And even then, there are some favorites not discussed at all that you might want to check out:

How can three hours of folk horror discussion not be enough? It’s a question that points to what may be the greatest strength of Janisse’s film. Like any truly strong documentary, her film not only covers its topic comprehensively, it inspires you to dig deeper on your own time.

Auckland Raiders

Dawn Raid

by Hope Madden

“Delightful” is a word I wouldn’t expect to use to describe a documentary about the rise and fall of a hip-hop empire. And yet, there you have it. Dawn Raid, Oscar Knightley’s doc about the seminal New Zealand rap label, is just that: delightful.

The main characters in the tale, Dawn Raid co-founders Danny “Brotha D” Leaosavai’i and Andy Murnane, are delights themselves. Humble, funny, self-deprecating and excellent storytellers, the duo tell their tale the way a buddy might over a few beers.

“Dude, listen to this — it’s crazy!”

The pair met taking a trade school business course that preached entrepreneurial spirit. Well, these two had that, so why finish the training? They wanted to start South Auckland’s first hip-hop label. To generate funds, they made and sold t-shirts.

The t-shirts, like their label’s own name, took ugly stereotypes about Polynesians and turned them on ear. (Dawn Raid itself refers to racist, government-sanctioned police action meant to rid NZ of unwanted Polynesian Islanders who’d outstayed their welcome.)

The joy and community pride that infects the pair’s actions inform not only their entire career but the film itself. While Murnane talks consistently of his desire to go bigger and get richer, it’s clear that both entrepreneurs wanted primarily to give South Auckland the chance to show the world its worth.

And it did. Beyond the charm of the film’s leads is the joy of the music itself. Knightly is wise to showcase each of Dawn Raid’s major artists—Deceptikonz, Adeaze, Aaradhna, Mareko and Savage. This not only provides a remarkable soundtrack, but it amplifies the impressive and unique style of music Dawn Raid recorded.

The typical ups and downs associated with this kind of music doc take on a freshness for the sheer energy Murnane brings to the film. Not a moment is wasted on regret, even though the digital age and the NZ government were not kind to Dawn Raid.

Still, Leaosavai’I and Murnane have little but joy to share when they remember the ups and the downs. Regardless of the fact that the outline is the same as many an entertainment doc, the soul is as jubilant as the music.

So it goes…

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time

by Hope Madden

Closure is hard for a lot of us. Take Robert Weide. The Curb Your Enthusiasm producer and director has been working on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary since the Nineties.

A rabid fan since his first introduction to Vonnegut’s work by a high school teacher, Weide went on to teach a class on the author at the same high school. When Weide began producing documentaries for public broadcast some years later, he hand-wrote a letter to his hero, offering to make Vonnegut the subject of his next project.

Kurt Vonnegut wrote him back.

Very often, when a documentarian inserts themselves into the film, it’s hard not to wonder why. In this case, seeing Weide’s face as he recounts opening the handwritten note from his idol (which he still has) explains everything.

Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time is not a simple biographical doc on an icon of American literature. This is a real-life depiction of one of humanity’s most common fantasies: becoming close friends with your celebrity hero.

The illuminating doc is there, too, but even that is affected by the friendship. You can see it in the trusting relationship between Weide and Vonnegut’s children, who describe a distant man they got to know more through his writing than through time spent with him.

That very intimacy likely helps Weide and co-director Don Argott (Last Days Here, Believer) uncover a rarely captured side of the famously acerbic and funny author.

A chronologically unmoored approach (very Billy Pilgrim, sans the aliens) lets the doc ease you into the subject matter. We get to know Weide, we meet Vonnegut, we find what we might hope to find about Kurt. (It’s OK to call him Kurt, we’re friends now.) He’s funny, charming, goofy, brilliant, friendly. How awesome would it be to meet [insert your name of choice here] and have them respond to you like this?

It would be awesome.

From there, Weide is as likely to gush over some act of camaraderie, fawn over some new accomplishment, or dig into a Vonnegut misstatement in hopes of greater understanding — as you would with a loved one whose behavior concerns you.

Little by little, the film peels away what we may have assumed about Kurt Vonnegut to find what was underneath it all — most of which we should have guessed at given the words he committed to the page. And though the film is overlong and perhaps slightly too wrapped up in Weide himself, it warmly and bittersweetly answers one of life’s most relatable questions.

What if my hero wanted to be my friend?

Second Sight

The End of Blindness

by Rachel Willis

In Ethiopia, 1.6% of the population is blind, 80% of them with curable ailments. But for the nation’s poorest, care is beyond their reach.

In director A.J. Martinson’s documentary, The End of Blindness, we follow Dr. Samuel Bora, the only ophthalmologist for a population of more than 3 million, as he works to treat as many people as he can.

With the help of the non-profit organization, Tropical Health Alliance Foundation (THAF), Dr. Bora operates primarily in the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. However, he spends two weeks out of every month traveling the country to visit the nation’s poorest villages.

Though focusing primarily on Dr. Bora, the documentary takes time to follow a few of those who seek treatment: a young mother who has never seen the face of her four-month-old baby; an older woman out of work for two years because of her blindness; a nine-year-old boy suffering traumatic cataracts after an injury.

By allowing us to spend time with a few of the people who desperately need treatment, Martinson gives these startling numbers a human face. For those of us so far removed from the idea of a five-minute, $50 surgery being unattainable, this is a reminder of the importance of access to quality medical care. In some ways, this gives the film the feel of one of those depressing commercials that hopes to elicit donations.

Further contributing to this impression is the deep timber of the film’s narrator. The crisis is laid out in simple terms with the narrator’s occasional input. The documentary’s score makes sure we recognize the importance of Dr. Bora’s work.

Yet, it’s impossible not to be moved when a patient has their bandages removed and the blank expression on their face gives way to a radiant smile that tells us the operation was successful. Dr. Bora’s work is crucial for a country where so many are devastated by blindness. It’s a crisis worthy of the attention the documentary draws to it.

For the squeamish, a few close-ups of eye surgery may have you turning away, but the images underscore the ease of the surgery Dr. Bora performs. It’s a stark reminder that this quick surgery is only possible because of the dedication of one man – who sometimes performs 60 surgeries in one day.

His dedication is a reminder that one person can make a difference. His story is worth telling.

Love And Mercy

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

by George Wolf

“Genius” is a term often thrown around too casually, but about one third of the way through Long Promised Road, a moment drops that leaves little doubt Brian Wilson fits the bill.

Veteran producer Don Was sits in a recording studio with the original masters of God Only Knows, the classic pop symphony Wilson wrote and produced for The Beach Boys in 1966. As Was isolates track after track of those ethereal harmonies, he’s left to just shake his head in amazement.

“I’ve been making records for 40 years, and I have no idea what he’s doing.”

Credited with being an innovator of recording studio possibilities and the architect of the unmistakable Beach Boys sound, Brian has a long list of music business admirers, and director/co-writer Brent Wilson lines up an array of famous faces to sing Brian’s praises. From Elton to Springsteen, Foo Fighters to Nick Jonas and more, we hear nothing but well-earned respect and praise for a once-in-a-lifetime virtuoso. 

And that’s great, but it’s not exactly anything new.

What makes Long Promised Road resonate is the time we spend with the man himself, in rare moments when Brian feels safe enough to let his guard down and revisit people and places from his life and career.

Our guide is the film’s co writer Jason Fine, a longtime journalist who gained Brian’s trust over the course of several years and many conversations. Brian started hearing voices at age 21, and he is still troubled by mental health issues which can make formal, sit down interviews uncomfortable for him. So instead, Jason and Brian take to the road for some engaging carpool conversation.

They tool around Brian’s old California stomping grounds (some of which are now actual landmarks saluting him and The Beach Boys) as Jason asks about the past and Brian answers, while often calling out song requests for Jason to cue up in the car. Through it all, Brian comes across as a dear, sweet soul with minimal ego (he excitedly introduces himself to Vanna White in a diner), full of deep feeling and affection for those who’ve touched his life (even his father Murray and his longtime doctor Eugene Landy – whose relationships with Brian were at best volatile and at worst criminal).

Director Wilson (Streetlight Harmonies) intersperses the conversation with some terrific archival footage, at one point layering film of a young Brian directing the famous “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians alongside more recent footage of him onstage and in studio. It’s a wonderful juxtaposition that brings the film full circle, giving us both a warm and often moving look back with a fragile genius and an illuminating glimpse of the maestro in his element.

Cop Shop

At the Ready

by Rachel Willis

At Horizon High School in El Paso, Texas, students have the opportunity to learn and train for careers in law enforcement. From Border Patrol to the El Paso PD, director Maisie Crow examines the opportunities and dilemmas the students face as they follow this path in her documentary, At the Ready.

The film follows three students, two seniors at Horizon and one recent graduate, keeping the focus on how these teenagers participate not only in the Law Enforcement classes, but the school’s criminal justice club.

Mason, a transgender youth, joins the club because it’s portrayed as a place where a student gains a family. Indeed, we see former members of the criminal justice club returning to the school to interact with and encourage current members. A family is something Mason is desperate to find, as he is mostly on his own. With divorced parents, and a father often away for his job, Mason struggles with his loneliness, as well as his inability to reveal who he truly is to his parents, classmates and teachers.

The familial aspect of the classes is conveyed through the actions of not just the students, but many of the teachers – those profiled are all retired law enforcement personnel. However, we see that for some of the teachers, there is a hypocrisy to what they teach. They struggle to convey the realities of a career in law enforcement: the stress on one’s family, the fear, and the trauma that comes with the territory.

Many of the students are children of immigrants. For them, working for Border Patrol is an opportunity to not only protect the border, but to help others trying to enter the country. The reality of the situation is another focus of the film: Trump’s border policy of separating children from their families is something many of the students struggle with. Christina, a recent graduate, finds herself questioning the ethical morality of such a policy. When the border policy changes with the whims of those in D.C., it’s the people on the ground who have to deal with the fallout of inhumane regulations.

Crow does a good job of keeping the focus on the subjects in the film without injecting too much bias. You’re encouraged to make up your own mind as you connect with people on screen.

Many well-done documentaries will not only hold your interest, but make you think. This one does both. 

More than Gore

Smoke and Mirrors

by Brandon Thomas

The word “Savini” conjures up a lot of historic imagery in the minds of horror fans. From the zombies in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead to the ground-breaking slasher effects in the original Friday the 13th, Tom Savini has been involved in some of the most iconic horror movies of the last 40 years. In the documentary Smoke and Mirrors, director Jason Baker moves past the well-known effects work, and digs into the personal and the passions of the horror icon.

We’re living in a time where documentaries focusing on filmmakers and other notable TV and movie personalities have become ubiquitous. A lot of these are quite good, but usually end up checking many of the same boxes. Talking heads do a lot of the heavy lifting, and the main subject’s participation isn’t always guaranteed. Thankfully, Savini himself is front and center in Smoke and Mirrors

Having Savini so involved gives Smoke and Mirrors a larger sense of legitimacy. There’s also a notable difference in focus that might not have happened had the film relied solely on interviews and secondhand accounts. Instead of offering retreads of effects stories he’s told dozens of times before, the film gets deeply personal with Savini. From touching on tragedy he experienced as a child, to the horror he witnessed in Vietnam, Savini doesn’t hold back when discussing the trials he’s faced in his life. 

A particularly surprising bit for me was learning just how passionate Savini was – and is – about acting. He comes alive when talking about the stage productions he was a part of and how that opened doors he never dreamed of. There’s a twinge of “What if…” sadness surrounding Savini’s acting career that he delicately dances around due to personal obligations. 

Smoke and Mirrors goes out of its way to highlight Savini’s character over his career. The interviews that are peppered in all end up in the same place: talking about what an amazing guy Tom Savini is. The importance of his contributions to cinema is never forgotten, but the value of the man over the work takes center stage.