Tag Archives: documentary reviews

Grindhouse Grandma

Queen of the Deuce

by Brandon Thomas

New York City in the 1960s and 1970s occupies its own special corner of film history. Films like Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 paint a vivid picture of Manhattan at the time. Long before chain restaurants, toy stores, and Disney actors lined the streets near Times Square, X-rated theaters, peep shows, and violent crime reigned supreme. Despite the roughness of the area, it was still home to a lot of people. Queen of the Deuce focuses on one such family, and specifically the matriarch who also just happened to run a mini porn empire. 

Director Valerie Kontakos’s documentary delves into the rich history of one Chelly Wilson as told in the present day by her children, grandchildren, and various other family members. Originally from a small Jewish community in Greece, Chelly left Europe for America before the start of World War II. After marrying, having children, and working a modest job, Chelly found herself the owner of property throughout New York City. By the time the early 1970s rolled around, many of these properties were X-rated theaters (one of which Chelly lived above).

Larger than life individuals often make the best subjects of this kind of documentary and Chelly Wilson is no exception. From the start, it’s easy to see why people were so drawn to her. She was magnetic, feisty, testy, and loving sometimes all in the span of a single interaction. Chelly’s family lovingly talk about how she held court in her apartment with friends, neighbors, and family. Everyone would be under her spell. Sometimes this may have even included members of the local mafia. 

Kontakos skillfully weaves tales of Chelly’s history and her present in the 1970s and 80s into the fabric of Manhattan of the time. Chelly was a woman who faced adversity from an early age, and the mean streets of New York weren’t about to intimidate her. There are low points in her story for sure, but much of The Queen of the Deuce is filled with stories of how loved and admired she was. 

Much of the film is filled with family videos and photographs that help to amplify the stories. This visual history is an enormous asset to Kontakos, who doesn’t have to completely fall back on standard talking head footage.

Queen of the Deuce does an admirable job of touching on the history of New York City of the time, but even better is how the film showcases the love and respect a family can share throughout the ages.

The Devil You Know

The Thief Collector

by Rachel Willis

There’s an old adage that you can never really know someone. In director Allison Otto’s documentary, The Thief Collector, she puts this at the forefront with a modest couple, Jerry and Rita Alter, from middle-of-nowhere New Mexico, who happened to be art thieves.

Or at least, that’s how it seems.

After an estate sale, three men, Rick, Dave, and Buck discover an unattractive painting placed behind a bedroom door. It isn’t until a local artist recognizes the painting that they look into it further. One Google search later, the men discover the painting in their possession is Willem de Kooning’s Woman-Ochre, stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in 1985.

So, how did Jerry and Rita, two teachers, come to have this painting in their possession?

The Thief Collector wants to answer this question.

There is a lot of reliance on Jerry’s short stories to paint a picture of two people who were “thrill seekers” (also conveniently one of Jerry’s story titles). There is documented evidence that the couple lived a fascinating and exhilarating life – one full of travel and adventure in parts of the world many will never see.

However, any writer of fiction would be appalled to think after their death, their stories would be taken as fact – and as evidence of crimes. While this could be the case for Jerry, it’s all speculation.

There is more compelling evidence to implicate the Alters in the crime, but there is a lot of filler in the documentary. Readings from Jerry’s short stories serve as narration for scripted scenes – with Glenn Howerton as “Jerry” and Sarah Minnich as “Rita”. While these scenes are an over-the-top kind of enjoyable, they’re not evidence of wrongdoing, no matter how much the filmmakers might wish them to be.

By focusing on Jerry’s stories, there is a lot of reaching rather than revelation.

Where the documentary succeeds is in its blend of interviews, in footage of the Alters’ many trips, and the vast collection of art in their home. The reenactments don’t quite fit, but they’re amusing.

Of course, the film would have been better served if it tightened its focus to what is known about the theft and the Alters. The interviews with friends and family give a good back and forth on the film’s theme – that the people you’ve known many years, maybe even your whole life, may have a dark side. It’s definitely something to ponder.

Aimless Butterflies and Deluded Bees

My Father Muhammad Ali: The Untold Story

by Daniel Baldwin

What becomes of the child of one of the most famous people in the world? What’s it like to have a father who you never really knew, because he was constantly on the road? What’s it like to have a mother that chose the fortune & glory of her husband’s life on the road over you? These are hard questions that this documentary is asking. Ones with very tough answers.

The title points toward a documentary focused on an untold side of Muhammad Ali’s life, but the actual film itself is almost entirely focused on the current life of one of his children, 50-year-old Muhammad Ali Jr. Junior has lived through decades of drug addiction, harassment, abandonment, financial issues, marital strife, etc. This is about him looking back at the trials, tribulations, and mistakes of his own life, in comparison to those of his iconic father.

Others are interviewed throughout – sometimes about Ali, sometimes about Junior – but Junior himself is the primary storyteller. He is an unreliable narrator; constantly dishing out his version of events and frequently dropping into unprompted impressions of his father as a defensive coping mechanism whenever his own faults are focused on too closely for his liking. It’s rather heartbreaking.

If that sounds compelling, it is, at least on paper. The filmmakers never seem to settle on any sort of thematic throughline for what they are showcasing, leaving the narrative (or lack thereof) being spun before us to just meander along in a highly segmented fashion. Because of this, the finished work feels less like a film and more like a miniseries that has been chopped down to feature-length.

The filmmakers know that Junior is often deceiving them, as well as himself, but outside of a few moments with a therapist, he is never called on it. Nor are enough witnesses to the contrary present to fully illustrate this. The sheer lack of voices from his early life leaves us with an unclear picture of his past. Context is key and this film is sorely lacking it.

There’s also the matter of his best friend/manager, who the filmmakers clearly do not entirely trust, but once again, they never bother to fully interrogate that. If they were intentionally leaving room for interpretation, they left too much. In the end, the final question is less “Are the sins of the father repeated by the son?” and more “Why does this film exist?”

Born to Be Wild


by Brandon Thomas

Much has been made of how animals impact the lives of their humans. For a lot of people, many of the fondest memories they have are of a dog or cat that brought an enormous amount of joy to their lives. Of course, these stories usually revolve around domesticated pets and not wild animals. Wildcat deviates from your standard nature documentary and instead focuses on the deep bond between an emotionally fragile man and the wildcat that relies on him for survival.

Harry Turner is a twenty-something Englishman who deployed to Afghanistan when he was 18 years old. As Harry’s time in the armed forces comes to an end, he’s left with scars both physical and emotional. Looking for a fresh start, Harry travels to the remote Peruvian portion of the Amazon and links up with a Ph.D. student and her animal sanctuary. As Harry continues to struggle with the effects of debilitating depression and PTSD, fate drops an orphaned ocelot (ironically named Keanu) into his care and into his life.

There’s a breeziness to Wildcat that helps it feel more personal than most nature docs. A huge swath of footage is shot by Harry himself and helps the audience understand his state of mind much more quickly than a series of talking heads might have. When Harry’s doing well, there’s a tight focus to the footage of Keanu and of his testimonials. As his mental health deteriorates, so does the shooting style of the film. Entire scenes take place with participants off-screen or in the background – at times leaving us just as disoriented as Harry.

So much of the film begins to feel voyeuristic as Harry spirals. Not in a gratuitous or exploitative way, but in that Harry’s deep emotional connection to Keanu’s well-being feels like an exposed nerve. Seeing this vulnerable wildcat rely on an equally vulnerable human being is a beautiful juxtaposition that forms the core of the film. 

Wildcat isn’t the kind of film that gives one a better understanding of nature and its fragility. Instead, this is a film that seeks to better understand the delicate connection that can exist between humanity and the animals that co-exist with us.


2nd Chance

by Tori Hanes

Impurity, hate, forgiveness, rebirth. The repeated image of a man shooting himself in the gut may not seem like the ideal piece of media to use to examine these heavy themes, but 2nd Chance by Ramin Bahrani proves time and again that face value has no place in its 90 minutes.

2nd Chance delves into brazen shock value. At first, this feels cheap and unwarranted. The image of a man repeatedly shooting himself in his bulletproof vest, grimacing, then firing at undeserving coke bottles leaves a bitter taste on the tongue. 

It becomes apparent, however, that this is not shock for shock value. Instead, this is the jaw-dropping life that Richard Davis has led for the past 70 or so years. If anything, Bahrani’s mission is to make Davis’s massive eccentricity somewhat digestible and justifiable.

It doesn’t take much to revel in Davis’s contradictions: his passionate drive toward realizing the American dream makes him familiar, yet his twisted morals pose him as alien.

The structure we’ve come to know and expect with modern-day documentaries is, in a word, boring. 2nd Chance does little to stray from the usual twists and calculated catharsis of others in its genre. Where it differs and excels is in the conscious effort to avoid making the filmmaker an important character. While many documentarians crave that command, inserting themselves into the narrative, Bahrani takes a diligent backseat. He acts as a firekeeper, poking the embers to evoke flames while distancing himself from the heat. 

The film portrays Davis’s flip from eccentric business mogul to undoubtedly narcissistic sociopath. However, Bahrani gracefully captures Davis authentically in his moments of shortcoming. This light touch becomes especially gratifying as the largely unredeemable Davis himself twists that sympathy toward hatred. 

Among the twists and turns, Bahrani brings forth some of the most genuine moments of human catharsis perhaps ever shown on screen. The contradiction these moments deliver takes the film from intriguing to masterful.

You may not expect the inventor of bulletproof vests to deepen your connection to humanity. 2nd Chance delights in flipping your expectations and pulling the trigger, whether you’re protected or not.



by Rachel Willis

It seems like it would be tough to be an all-female thrash metal band. It looks even tougher if you’re also in Lebanon. Director Rita Baghdadi allows us the opportunity to follow just such a band in her latest documentary, Sirens.

The band is Slave to Sirens, and it boasts a five-woman line-up with an amazing collection of musicians. It’s a shame there are so few opportunities during the documentary to hear them play.

The lack of music is due in part to the pandemic, but another issue is simply the sparsity of opportunities. When one show is booked, the band is called a few days later by the booking agent telling them the show has been canceled. The venue is not allowed to book a metal band.

The wider Lebanese society frowns upon metal music, likening it to Satanism (doesn’t that sound familiar?). The women refuse to give up, but it’s a tough world in which to have a successful metal band.

One of the few chances we have to see Slave to Sirens play is at the Glastonbury Festival in England. It’s a great performance; lead singer Maya has a growl that resonates and lead guitarist, Shery, works magic. It’s a shame that there are only a dozen people in the audience who see them perform.

As the documentary unwinds, two members start to stand apart from the rest: Shery and rhythm guitarist, Lilas. Both feel at odds with the world around them and seek music as a way to express their anger and frustration.

What Baghdadi gives us is more than a simple band documentary. Behind every moment, every note, every song, is a scene of raging turmoil within the borders of Lebanon. This chaos is reflected within the band and the interactions of its members. Scenes of tension between Shery and Lilas reflect the greater tension around them. The two women nearly come to blows during an argument. When a building blows up several scenes later, it feels like a reminder that what we do to each on a small scale is too often reflected back on a larger one.

If you’re not familiar with current events in Lebanon, it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. This is the kind of documentary that reminds us of the power music has to give voice to those who can’t always speak.

Eye of the Beholder

Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power

by Hope Madden

Filmmaker Nina Menkes tries to distill the effect of a century of cinema’s male gaze in her documentary Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power. Her focus is the way the language of film – particularly shot design, lighting and sound – subconsciously, insidiously inform how we see not just the film we’re watching, but everything we see everywhere.

Menkes’s doc is essentially a Ted Talk, padded here and there with talking head footage from academics, filmmakers and actors. Their conclusion? Filmmakers can’t fall back on any of the existing language of cinema because this language was developed by men for men, with men as the subject (one who acts) and women as the object (one who is acted upon) of their interest. It’s a language of power, and is used to disempower not only women, but any person or population meant to be seen as subject to the white, heterosexual patriarchy.

Intriguingly, Menkes chooses as examples mainly films universally considered masterpieces – Raging Bull, The Phantom Thread, The Hurt Locker, Do the Right Thing. Her aim is not to diminish each film on its own, but to point out that cinematic techniques that objectify women are so ingrained in filmmaking that even female filmmakers invoke them without thinking.

Menkes’s expert commentary includes Laura Mulvey, who coined the term “male gaze” in her 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The incomparable Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) quotes Audre Lourde to explain why even Patty Jenkins and Kathryn Bigelow fall prey to the same disempowering cinematic tendencies in their films. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

And when women do make films, in all likelihood, we do not see them. Director Eliza Hittman (Never Rarely Sometimes Always, It Felt Like Love) points to one of the many reasons we are so inundated by films awash in objectifying visuals. Men also choose which films are distributed.

The film clips she chooses are often spot on, sometimes head-scratchers. (I would argue that one Phantom Thread sequence is, in fact, an example of Paul Thomas Anderson intentionally subverting a common shot sequence to give the female power.) But more troubling is an over-reliance on her own footage.

Menkes’s brief venture into the lawsuits facing Hollywood studios is too brief. So, too, are sections about the connection between cinema’s treatment of women and Hollywood’s hiring practices, as well as global rape culture.

The arguments she raises are necessary, though. It’s important for women to see how the films we love betray us in large ways and small, and perhaps even more important for all of us to see that this is a structured, intentional device that we should notice and change.

Bloody Water Everywhere

A Taste of Whale

by George Wolf

Filmmaker Vincent Kelner knows you don’t want to see what he has for you.

But while his documentary A Taste of Whale doesn’t shy away from blood in the water, his ultimate goal lies beyond the killing grounds.

In his feature debut, Kelner takes us to Europe’s Faroe Islands, where every year some 700 pilot whales die in a traditional slaughter known to locals as the “Grind” (pronounced like “grinned”). Though the Faroes is a constituent country of Denmark, the people live under their own constitution, just one of the reasons many natives believe it’s a privilege to call the Faroes home.

And Kelner lets many Faroese defend the Grind with conviction, pointing to mischaracterizations and misunderstandings, while labeling visiting activists as “tourists.”

But there are some on the island that are willing to admit their hunting methods have strayed far beyond the traditional, and that maybe some of the protesters have a point.

Kelner does an admirable job tackling the issue from opposing sides, even drawing a subtle parallel between pragmatic approaches to behavioral change and recent pandemic mandates here at home.

But Kelner’s understated hand begins to apply more pressure once someone comments on the disconnect between not wanting to see things die, but still wanting to eat things that are dead.

If you turn away in horror at Kelner’s graphic footage from the Grind – and later, from slaughterhouses – A Taste of Whale stresses that this bloodshed will always exist “wherever you have meat for food.”

It is a bit of rope-a-dope from Kelner, but he wants you to be horrified. And when you are, he’s waiting to challenge your convictions with a lifestyle change that’s framed as the only logical choice.

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.