Tag Archives: documentaries

Jim & Andy

The official title of the documentary is Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond – Featuring a Very Special, Contractually Obligated Mention of Tony Clifton and it’s ‘about’ how Jim Carrey became Andy Kaufman in order to portray him in the 1999 movie Man in the Moon.

Andy Kaufman was a comedian who defied definition. There wasn’t and hasn’t been anyone like him before or since; Kaufman existed outside the normal conception of stand-up comedy. For a lot of people he was simply too much – so who better to play him than this generation’s over the top comedian, Jim Carrey?

Having watched the documentary, it’s hard to decide who’s crazier. Maybe Andy MV5BMjM3OTY1OTAxNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI0MTUxNDM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_Kaufman just didn’t give a fuck – but Jim? The documentary has a tonne of footage from the set of the movie, which was filmed 20 years ago. A documentary was planned at the time (shot by an old girlfriend of Andy’s) but Universal pulled the plug, for fear that the public would discover their beloved Jim Carrey to be an asshole. Cut to 2017 and the cat’s pretty much out of the bag. And maybe asshole’s not even the right word, but there is no one right word: he’s a space cadet, a depressive, a nonsensical philosopher. And those things are all apparent in the documentary, which also features an interview with him present day. And it’s hard to know who to detest and pity more: the Jim Carrey on the set of Man on the Moon was was never Jim Carrey at all because he was so deep in the character Jim never showed up to work, or the Jim Carrey today who at times seems downright bewildered even in his own skin. He talks about fugue states and telepathy, but bottom line, he believes that the spirit of Kaufman inhabited his body during filming. When director Milos Forman or colleagues like Danny De Vito or Paul Giamatti tried to address Jim on the set, “Andy” would be angry and\or defensive. “Andy” was always on, and always creating a ruckus. You can see how that would wear thin. The real Jim Carrey, whoever that is, has recently claimed to have had a spiritual awakening, and depending how woke you are yourself, what he spouts is either enlightened or crazy.

Either way, it’s hard to watch. And while it starts out to be fascinating in a voyeuristic, train wreck kind of way, my tolerance for it eroded before the 94 run time was up. And I’m a little uncomfortable eavesdropping on the scattered thoughts of a man who is perhaps not mentally at his best. Having battled depression for years, he has lately taken to ascribing meaninglessness to everything, coming off loopy in red carpet interviews. And he’s still staring down the barrel of a wrongful death lawsuit, accused by his dead girlfriend’s mother and estranged husband of having introduced her to hard drugs, prostitute, and at least 3 STIs. Carrey maintains the the lawsuit is simply a shakedown. I don’t know who’s right, but I do know that the whole method acting thing was nutty to begin with and is downright unhinged the way he does it. Maybe it’s the counsellor in me talking, but watching this just made me think: this man needs help.

 

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Dreaming of A Jewish Christmas

Earlier this week we learned about the man who invented Christmas with a little novel he wrote called A Christmas Carol. This time we’re learning about the men and women who helped give it a distinct sound: Jews who wrote Christmas carols. It might seem like an odd pairing, but Jewish songwriters wrote about everything, so why not the biggest holiday of the year? Sure it’s a Christian day, but if you didn’t need to be in love to write a great love song, what’s stopping you?

Irving Berlin, a Russian Jew, was perhaps the greatest song writer who ever lived. He made a living out of writing songs, so to ignore popular holidays was just bad business. He wrote White Christmas; Bing Crosby’s version went on to be the best-MV5BYWExOWMzOGYtY2Q1OS00NjE2LWIyM2UtMjhlNmU5N2E3OTljXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTYzMTcyNTg@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,666,1000_AL_selling single of all time. It also served to “de-Christ Christmas”, restyling the birth of Jesus into a holiday about snow that also evokes nostalgia for home and for childhood, concepts we can all relate to.

To further illustrate the point, the film maker uses another Jewish Christmas tradition, the Chinese restaurant, to bring the greatest hits alive. As the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in America, they had an understanding of what it took to get through a holiday they didn’t really participate in, and they redefined it for each other.

Winter Wonderland

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

Silver Bells

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)

Sleigh Ride

Let It Snow

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

Rockin Around The Christmas Tree

Do You Hear What I Hear

Once Irving Berlin had broken the mould, many Jewish song writers made contributions to the Christmas cannon. And the thing about any song that makes its way into pop culture is that it’s kind of universal. These songs, departing from mangers and baby messiahs, created a new mythology, one of snowmen and red-nosed reindeer – a version of Christmas we could all share in. This documentary explores the hidden stories behind many of these oft-recorded, beloved songs and gives them a context I (and likely many of us) have never considered.

One Of Us

Oh, Facebook. You’re so full of junk. Tonight my colleague hustled Matt out of the rtrthroom because she wanted to share something for “just the ladies.” Turns out, it was a GIF she’d seen on Facebook: Name your vagina by using the last movie you watched. Of course, instead of being boring and truthful (and smart and scrolling by without comment), women (and men) are falling over themselves to come up with the best titles they haven’t recently, or ever, seen: No Country For Old Men, Lethal Weapon, Sausage Party. Feel free to take you best shot in the comments section. As for me, well, I couldn’t quite remember the name of the last movie I’d seen – only that it was a documentary on Netflix about Hasidic Jews. I was a little worried.

Turns out the title is quite ordinary: One Of Us. But the watching of it is quite extraordinary. I mean, I really love documentaries that open the door to a world I know little about, and this one definitely does that. The Hasidic Jewish community is insular, secretive, closed. And that’s exactly the way they want it. They believe it’s what keeps them safe. They believe it was the only way they could rebuild after the Holocaust, and maybe they have a point. But what it means today is that the community is strictly guided by “laws” written by old, male rabbis that everyone must adhere to, or be excommunicated by all the friends and family they’ve ever known. The Hasidim live as their ancient peoples lived, and you can imagine that’s not easily accomplished in 2017. Though most sects have their own particular rules, no internet and no TV is usually a no-brainer; they don’t want to be “contaminated” by secular (ie, the rest of us) society.

And don’t even get me started on the oppressive rules for women (instead, let the documentary get started, it’s quite a bit more knowledgeable than I am). One of Us gleans its knowledge from 3 ex-Hasidim who have left the community with varying degrees of success. A young woman left her abusive husband but the community won’t let her children escape with her. One man dreamed of being an actor and left for L.A., and hasn’t seen his kids since either. Another, much younger, is struggling to find acceptance in a world he knows virtually nothing about. The very existence of Wikipedia was a watershed moment for him.

The film will make you shake with rage and empathy. The courage to leave, and then to come forward, must be abundant. The consequence is ostracism of course, but there are darker threats too. Made by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, directors of another favourite, must-see documentary, Jesus Camp, there’s a lot of truth uncovered here. There are still some questions left unanswered though: why are these crazy unfair Orthodox courts even legal? I get religious freedom and cultural sensitivity, but what about keeping kids safe?

One of Us is well made, with well-chosen subjects. It tries to be fair and open, but mostly it just tries to engage us, the viewers, and it definitely, definitely succeeds.

Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold

Joan Didion: a woman I have admired and read widely for years and years and years. She’s an amazing writer, a voice of a generation, a literary journalist who went on to write plays, movies, and novels. She always had a different slant, a different take on what the world was consuming. So it was beyond time to produce a documentary that would pay homage to this fascinating, formidable woman. As Barack Obama said when he presented her with the National Medals for Arts & Humanities in 2013, “I thought you already had one of these.”

Anyway, it was about time someone demystified this iconic writer, and who better than her own nephew, Griffin Dunne, to tease the nitty gritty out of her. Having read nearly 09didion-hartman-slide-76MA-jumboevery book attributed to her name, I wasn’t sure that there would be much left for me to discover. But when Dunne asks her what it was like, in the 1960s, to have seen that 5 year old girl she once wrote about, the one tripping on the LSD her mother had given her. There’s a pause, and we mentally fill in the appropriately horrified responses, but instead she quietly says “Let me tell you, it was gold.” And that’s what made her work so riveting, her voice to incisive. She was a serious, ballsy reporter, and in a time when female reporters were rare and journalists of her ilk were unheard of.

Of course the film is a love letter; this is, after all, Dunne’s beloved Aunt Joan. And Aunt Joan is still Joan Didion, a woman notoriously strategic in her confessions. So although every word she drops is precious, it’s not overly revelatory. Her most recent works, A Year of Magical Thinking, and Blue Nights, deal with the deaths of her husband and daughter respectively. They’re a doozie to read, especially if you’re reeling in your own grief as I was a the time. They’re beautiful, gut-punchy, elegiac pieces of writing that are still entirely Joan. This documentary feels a lot like the third in the trilogy: it belongs. And it’s about Joan, inasmuch as Joan can allow it to be.

NHFF 2017: An Exceptional Year for Documentaries (Part 1)

Last year, the New Hampshire Film Festival was as swept up in the 2016 election drama as I was. They featured an impressive selection of politically themed documentaries and even hosted a standing-room only panel discussion on Politics in Film. I couldn’t get enough last year and took in as much of it as I could.

The documentary selection this year was noticeably less overtly political, presumably because the NHFF is as burnt out on American politics as I am at this point. Still, in keeping with tradition, the New Hampshire Film Festival remains the one time of year that I favour documentaries. The four docs I saw this year have very little in common in either subject or structure but are all challenging and depressing in their own way.

sacred cod

Sacred Cod: The Fight for a New England Tradition– Due to climate change and overfishing, the cod population in the Gulf of Maine has been dwindling like never before. As a result, fishing communities in New England that have thrived for generations are now struggling as many are forced to sell their boats.

Far from being just another climate change documentary, Sacred Cod focuses instead on the people who are affected by federal government restrictions that severely limit the number of cod that they can catch. To many of them, it feels like government over-regulation is costing them not just their livelihood but their way of life and proud community traditions. Some even doubt the science that the government is citing, given that you can still cherry pick areas that are still rich with cod.

Of the documentaries I saw at the festival, Sacred Cod is the most traditional in style but is exceptional in its compassion. The decreasing cod population and the necessity of government intervention is indisputable at this point and directors Steve Liss, Andy Laub, and David Abel know it but they show as much empathy to those affected by the quotas as they do commitment to the facts.

the reagan show

The Reagan Show– “So, what is a Canadian doing in New Hampshire watching a documentary about our greatest president?”. A young guy I met in line asked me this before The Reagan Show and I have no idea whether he was being sarcastic or not about that last part.

Nor can I tell you with any confidence what the filmmakers behind The Reagan Show thought of America’s 40th president. There are no narrators or even original interviews with which they can betray their political biases. They rely exclusively on footage from the White House archives and TV news segments to tell their story. Specifically, they’re focused on the story of how Reagan exceeded the expectations of most critics in his arms race negotiations with then Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.

If The Reagan Show has a point of view, it’s that Reagan was the first President to really understand television and how to play to the cameras in shaping the public’s perception of him. As far as politics goes, your own point of view will likely be challenged. I went in with an anti-Reagan bias and found that point of view challenged just as I’m sure the Reagan enthusiast I talked to earlier had his challenged too.

24 Snow

We encountered all kinds of interesting documentaries at the Planet in Focus film festival, but I’m admitting a soft spot for 24 Snow.

I have a passion for documentaries anyway. A camera can actually be a transportation device, carrying us away to a world that looks and feels entirely different from our own. Sometimes the lens looks upon a piece of fiction that’s been created to jar your senses (like Blade Runner 2049), other times it encourages you to take a second look at something that’s quite familiar (like The Florida Project), but documentaries can do both while actually reflecting real life back at you.

24 Snow isn’t fiction but it definitely felt foreign to me, and its foreignness informed me on a world I knew little about. With this documentary, we travel to the Siberian Russian territory of Yakutia. I didn’t know there were Russian Inuits, yet there they MV5BOGRkMDk5NjctMmMwZC00YjUxLWExM2QtZDdlY2Y5MzcyZjIzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTA3MzMxMTg@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_were, surviving in that beautiful but frigid (-70C) land. We are introduced to one main in particular: Sergei is a horse breeder, and even his horses will look strange to you. The Yakutian horse has of course evolved to weather the icy temperatures. They are small but sturdy animals, with shaggy coats that hopefully keep them warm. Their thick hair and manes are not unlike those of Shetland ponies but when you see one completely coated in ice, you know you’re in unfamiliar territory. The breeders de-ice the horses the way I de-ice my windshield. It’s a way of life I can’t really comprehend: solitary, isolated. No telephone, no electricity. No cash. No cars (none that can run you through ice and snow anyway – sleds get the job done).

These harsh conditions are a real test of one’s limits and it’s interesting to get to know the kind of person this job attracts. I live in Canada and am not unfamiliar with snowy, even permafrosted terrain, but the Yakutia is something else entirely. It’s stunning if you can separate it from its harshness, and the lush cinematography here certainly helps. The people and beasts of 24 Snow completely captivated me; it’s a fascinating documentary by Mikhail Barynin that’s as informative as it is beautiful.

Food Coop

There’s a grocery store in Brooklyn that’s 5 times busier than other markets in the area; it’s a food co-op, where members trade labour for access to the best and freshest food sources.

The Park Slope food co-op is kind of great in an old-fashioned way, with so many people MV5BZjA2OTQ0NmQtOWE1Yy00OGU5LWI4ZDUtYWZjNjkzZmYwMzFhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjIxMTk4Nzg@._V1_from all walks of life willing to put in work (2h45m monthly) in order to keep labour costs down for the greater good of this beloved co-op. And it clearly is very much loved. It offers locally sourced, often organic products for 40% cheaper than you’d find in luxury grocery stores, and the food on offer here is much, much better.

The documentary Food Coop, by directors Thomas Boothe and Maellanne Bonnicel, explores this strange beast that exists in the shadows of Wall Street but thrives on a different kind of economy, one that is community-minded and fair. For the people who work and shop there, it fosters a neighbourly spirit where people are making connections with each other, and with the food grown within just a few miles of them. The film also serves as a guide book of sorts for others who might be interested in starting up a co-op. It’s a viable alternative system that seems to have few drawbacks. It’s democracy in action, good food in the belly, and a more planet-friendly approach to food and consumer culture. There’s a lot to be learned, but one of those lessons is just that the personalities that keep a food co-op running successfully over decades are quirky and varied. The people watching is almost as good as the system is tempting.

 

Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller: you may not know her name, but you should.  She was the first woman elected Chief of the Cherokee nation but her story is more complex than any list of her achievements would imply.

Born to a Cherokee father and European mother, she was raised with  sense of her culture but was influenced by a lot of things. She married young but continued her studies, and upon leaving her husband (with 2 small children in tow), Mankiller underwent a cultural and political awakening that led her down the path that would cast her as a role model and inspiration to her people, and to women. But she started out in an entry level position, only wanting to “help her people.”

Mankiller-DocumentaryThis documentary is not particularly imaginative when it comes to film making; it is straight forward, with few tricks up its sleeves. But Mankiller is a compelling subject, and a documentary shedding light on her story is important when it is omitted from so many history books. When Mankiller was first elected chief in 1985, it was to a male-dominant political structure that she broke into with patience and tact. She persevered, secure in the knowledge that the traditional Cherokee way was a more gender-balanced approach. She overcame a lot of obstacles in order to improve the lives of her people, and many believed her work with the federal government might have led to a national political career had her own health not stood in the way.

Mankiller has a legacy worth notice. If the story-telling by director Valerie Red-Horse Mohl is a little bland, Mankiller’s message of empowerment and equality still resonates.

A film like this can be difficult to get off the ground, and a Kickstarter campaign was necessary to secure the least bit of funding. Luckily, the “First Lady of Sci-Fi” Gale Anne Hurd was on board as a producer. Her career was launched when she produced and co-wrote The Terminator but followed up with Aliens, The Abyss, Armageddon, The Incredible Hulk, Dick, and more. Today she’s the executive producer of The Walking Dead, which means she had lots of famous friends to call upon for lucrative Kickstarter rewards. Creator Robert Kirkman signed comic books; composer Bear McCreary contributed copies of the score; the costumer Eulyn Womble designed special tshirts; Norman Reedus volunteered a custom voicemail message; Hershel himself, Scott Wilson, offered up a spaghetti dinner; showrunner Scott Gimple signed scripts. I think it’s really special when people come together to back a project like this. And I think it’s a credit to Mankiller’s memory that this documentary came together under the supervision of two strong and capable women. You can see this film when it screens at the ImagiNative film festival, Saturday October 21st at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Unfractured

Greetings from Toronto’s Planet In Focus film festival, an environmental festival that highlights films that “question, explore, and tell stories about the world in which we live.”

Their opening night film is Chanda Chevannes’ Unfractured. It’s about fracking, but more than that, it’s about Dr. Sandra Steingraber, the tireless anti-fracking activist from upstate New York. The documentary follows her industrious and tenacious work to get her government to outlaw fracking. Chevannes follows her as she makes speeches, risks arrest at protests, and visits other countries to find out how others are dealing with this environmental disaster in the face of fierce opposition from its profiteers.

Dr. Steingraber is an eco-activist, a biologist, and a prolific writer on the topics of climate change and ecology. Her previous collaboration with Chevannes based on her highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment resulted in a documentary seen by millions. Unfractured is a further exploration of the topic, linking fracking not just to damage to the environment, but to terrible risks to the health of the people living anywhere near it.

Dr. Steingraber is also a wife and a mother. Even when her home life is shaky, she doggedly pursues her advocacy because she genuinely believes in health and safety not just for her own family but for her community. Her commitment to the cause is inspiring; I was particularly moved by “The antidote to despair and cynicism is to fight with your whole heart.” This documentary speaks to any of us who feel sometimes that the fight is just too big, that things are hopeless as they stand. As Steingraber puts it, “We are all members of a great human orchestra and it is now time to play the Save the World Symphony. You do not have to play a solo, but you do have to know what instrument you hold and find your place in the score.”

 

OPENING NIGHT GALA & RECEPTION

Thursday, October 19, 2017
The Royal Cinema
6:30 PM (Doors Open at 6:00 PM)
Reception to follow at Revival Bar at 9:00 PM

 

TIFF: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Whether or not you love her music, you know Lady Gaga. You know the stunts, the hair, the makeup, the crazy costumes, the meat dress, the Madonna feud, the constant nudity. But when Lady Gaga wanted to rebrand herself with a new album,  Joanne, in which both she and her music would be stripped-down and very different from their former selves, she decided this documentary would be just the thing to introduce Lady Gaga-lite to her fans.

Like way too many documentaries of this sort, Lady Gaga only offers up what she wants us to see, nothing more, and definitely nothing very personal. It’s all about the music, so your enjoyment of this film will depend a lot on your appreciation of her music. Director Chris Moukarbel grants us backstage access to her shows, her recording studio, her music video shoots, and the preparations for her Superbowl halftime show.

I’m not a huge fan of hers, but I can appreciate her voice and her musicianship. I am a little less forgiving of the rich and famous who star in documentaries whose sole purpose is to tell you how hard their cushy lives are. As a fellow sufferer of chronic pain, I want to have sympathy for her plight, but watching doctors who treat the rest of us as drug seekers literally throw them at her is a little disheartening. And that’s not mentioning the personal masseuse and physio therapist she staffs round the clock, or the makeup artist who accompanies her to doctor’s appointments to make sure she never looks less than her best.

Lady Gaga arrives on the red carpet for her film "Gaga: Five Foot Two" during the Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto

I suppose if you’re a big enough fan you can likely look beyond the privileged whining and appreciate the work she pours into her music, and the family story behind the album in question, which is actually quite interesting.

 

I did, at times, feel a little sad for her. In the documentary she seems ready to shed the more outrageous parts of her “performance”, wants to be taken seriously out of the crazy high fashion and in just a pair of jean shorts. Will her fans accept this transition? If you saw her at the TIFF premiere of the film, you’d be inclined to assume the answer is no. She seems to have already reverted to her old ways before the movie even hit Netflix. I guess my biggest takeaway is that yes, compromises have been made. Money and success don’t insulate from that.