2011 Documentary Round-Up: Part 2


Bill Cunningham New York (12/11/2011)
Before seeing this documentary I’d never so much as heard of Bill Cunningham even in passing, but within certain circle’s he’s extremely well known and respected.  Cunningham is a fashion photographer.  If that’s enough to make you disinterested I don’t blame you, but hear me out.  I have no respect for fashion at all, but the way Cunningham views the topic seems surprisingly intelligent rather than vapid.  Since the early 50s he’s been photographing people on the streets of New York trying to pick up on trends as they emerge from the people.  He’s an interesting guy too with a lot of charming quirks like his insistence on traveling the city by bicycle and the fact that he lives in an incredibly small room in Carnegie Hall surrounded by file cabinets filled with negatives.  The film does descend into hagiography at times and I would have liked more discussion about what exactly separates his work from that of a paparazzo, but for the most part this is a shockingly interesting and well made doc.
*** out of Four

Tabloid (12/23/2011)
Two years ago Errol Morris made an excellent documentary called S.O.P.: Standard Operating Procedure about the deadly serious issue of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and it opened to a resounding shrug from the film community.  This year he made a documentary about an ultimately inconsequential sex scandal and received much more attention because of it.  Apparently even in the world of highbrow documentaries sex and sensationalism sell better than war journalism.  Still this documentary about the strange case of Joyce McKinney manages to be a very interesting account of a story that hasn’t really been told on this side of the Atlantic.

It is interesting to try to discern what the truth is in regards to what happened between McKinney and Kirk Anderson, but Morris is ultimately more interested in dissecting McKinney and seeing what makes her tick.  On top of all that, Morris is at the top of his stylistic game and has given himself the freedom to run wild with it.  Morris incorporates newspaper clippings and title cards seamlessly with the interview footage in a way that is visually appealing while also revealing a sly sense of humor about all of the proceedings.  The film might lack some of the weight of Morris’ best films, but its every bit as well made and still very interesting to watch.
***1/2 out of Four

Senna (1/7/2011)
I once looked up a list of the best paid athletes in the world expecting to see names like Derek Jeter or Kevin Garnet, instead what I saw was someone named Michael Schumacher, which is a name I’d never heard of in a sport I had no idea was that lucrative: Formula 1 racing.  Though the sport is not followed at all in the United States, the worldwide fanbase is apparently quite huge, so huge that the name “Senna” is a household name in many parts of the world.  Ayrton Senna was in fact a three time world champion on the F1 circuit and a dominant driver throughout the late 80s and early 90s before his career was cut short by a fatal crash in 1994.  The documentary Senna covers the driver’s professional life from his entry in the European circuit, through a bitter rivalry with another driver named Alain Prost, up until that fateful crash that ended his life.

Because Senna was such a public figure there was so much footage available that director Asif Kapadia is largely able to let the public record speak for itself.  We do occasionally get voice over commentary by sports journalists, but we never cut to talking heads and the film also doesn’t use a narrator, instead we see the various events played out in the footage as if this were a dramatic film.  It’s similar to the approach used for the documentary Tupac: Resurection, which also knew the power of simply letting archival footage speak for itself.  By the end of the film we really feel like we’ve witnessed one of the great stories in professional sports play out before our eyes.
***1/2 out of Four

If a Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front (1/8/2012)
We’ve all heard the stories about “ecco-terrorists” who have set fire to lumber mills and freed test animals, but rarely have we met them.  In this new documentary we do indeed meet one of these so called terrorists named Daniel McGowan, a seemingly friendly and likable young man living in New York.  We watch McGowan over the course of a few months leading up to his eventual imprisonment and then look back at what led him to this point.  We learn about the history of the E.L.F. and what turned them from mainstream activists into arsonists, and how they managed to last as long as they did.  While the filmmaker is clearly sympathetic to McGowan, he does interview both the U.S. Attorney who convicted him, a cop involved in the investigation, and some of the people who lost their property to these fires and allows all of them to tell their side of the story without judgment.  The film itself is efficient, if not overly artistic, it felt like one of the many true crime documentaries that tend to air on MSNBC on weekend afternoons.  That may be for the best given that there’s a lot of information here that needed to be covered, and the evenhandedness by which it is conveyed is commendable.
*** out of Four

Buck (1/11/2012)
Often documentaries will come out and bring attention to stories that seem so interesting that they inspire Hollywood to make a narrative film out of the material.  Here we have an example of the opposite.  Robert Redford made a film loosely based on the horse trainer Buck Brannaman fifteen years ago called The Horse Whisperer and only now are we getting a documentary account of the real man.  Brannaman is an interesting person in that he seems like a “hard” man but he doesn’t have the violent swagger that is often associated with “cowboys.”  In fact he’s the antithesis of the impulsive “cowboy” that George W. Bush claimed to be.  His backstory, which involved a very tough childhood, is also interesting and watching his horse training techniques is also kind of interesting.  The thing is, I’m not sure that I needed a full 88 minutes in order to be interested by all this.  I feel the film may have been better served if it had been a Documentary short subject rather than a feature length film.
**1/2 out of Four


One response to “2011 Documentary Round-Up: Part 2

  1. Nice set of reviews. I watched Senna earlier this month and was really impressed with how well the archival footage was put together. I don’t think I have ever seen F1 racing before, but this was a moving experience regardless.

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