Documentary Round-Up (Summer Counter-Programming Edition)

This summer some of the most successful counter-programming efforts have been by documnetaries rather than scripted independent films. Normally i’m not one to see docs in theaters but with MoviePass now a factor (while it lasts) it’s become easier to justify seeing these movies before they hit DVD and streaming. Here are my capsule reviews of the summer’s biggest non-fiction hits.

RBG (7/8/2017)

The new Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG fits pretty clearly into the trend of “profile documentaries” like Mavis!, Joan Rivers: Piece of Work, or Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.  There are seemingly dozens of documentaries like this each year which follow a pretty rigid formula: follow an octogenarian around for a week and then intercut that footage of their still exciting life with talking head interviews which illuminate what makes them so important.  As such I was a little surprised when one of these profile docs managed to break out and become something of a sleeper hit at the box office.  For the most part this is exactly the documentary you think it is.  It probably is a slight cut above some of the other profile docs out there if only because Betsy West and Julie Cohen have a knack for cutting to funny excerpts from their interviews at smart moments and because they do a reasonably good job of summarizing the various legal cases into brief segments.  That said, the movie isn’t breaking much new ground or digging overly deep into Ginsburg’s career.  The interviews they do with Ginsburg herself appear to be rather surface level and aren’t very revealing, the film seems to gather a lot more information from interviews with her various friends and colleagues.  The film is also oddly disinterested in talking about how she interacted with other members of the court outside of her odd friendship with Antonin Scalia.  Keeping you documentary focused is one thing but it seems downright strange that the movie only spends about a minute mentioning Sandra Day O’Connor and even less time on Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

I am not really the target audience for RBG as I’m something of a Supreme Court junkie (or at least I was before that hobby turned into a rather depressing exercise recently) and I already knew most of the facts that are being imparted here.  Rather, this seems to be directed at people who primarily know Ginsberg from the “Notorious R.B.G.” meme, which is a meme that always seemed to bug me for reasons I was never quite able to place my finger on until late in the film when it begins talking about her role as “the great dissenter” and cuts to interviews by people talking about how “awesome” her various rulings in descent are.  In short it feels like these people are making an icon out of Ginsburg less for what she’s able to accomplish on the Roberts Court and more for how woke she sounds while failing on the Roberts Court.  It’s like a perfect symbol for everything wrong with modern online activism where sounding righteous is valued more than actual political wins.  I deeply wish that Ginsberg’s fans had spent a little more time providing Ginsberg with likeminded justices than making her look “badass” but I digress.  If you don’t know much about Ginsberg’s career this is probably as good a place to start as any but for me personally something a bit more interested in legal reasoning than pure iconography would have hit the spot a little better.

*** out of Five

Whitney (7/13/2017)

I’m not exactly sure what made me want to see Whitney outside of the fact that I’ve been on something of a documentary kick as of late and can see things for free with MoviePass.  I wouldn’t call myself much of a Whitney Huston fan and I’m not even overly familiar with most of her music.  Her peak years were a bit before my time and outside of a few key singles she’s been off my radar.  That said I have always been somewhat fascinated by her downfall.  We’ve seen a lot of artists fall to drug use, but unlike the Janis Joplins and Amy Winehouses of the world Houston never really cultivated the “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” image, rather she always seemed like she wanted to be this classy “diva” singer but stories of her being a straight up junkie kept emerging.  Kevin Macdonald’s new documentary about the singer doesn’t exactly break ground with the form but it does answer a lot the unanswered questions and does so in an unflinching but dignified way.  The film is mostly told in a chronological narrative fashion through interviews with surviving family members, most of whom tell the story in guarded but honest fashion and through some pretty effective investigation director Kevin MacDonald does seem to get to the bottom of things.  The one thing that the documentary is never really able to do is draw a connection between Huston’s life story and her music, though I’m not exactly sure that those connections are there to be found given that she wasn’t really a songwriter and cultivated an image that was distinct from her reality.  The film has drawn comparisons to the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, personally I think this one is a little stronger if only because Huston strikes me as a more substantial artist whose career lasted longer.

***1/2 out of Five

Three Identical Strangers (7/17/2017)

There are some news stories that stand the test of time and almost become legend and some that don’t. For instance, there was a documentary a couple of years ago called The Witness that sought to explore a famous murder case that was quoted over and over again over the years and had becomes something of a case study in group psychology.  The new documentary Three Identical Strangers does something similar in that it takes a human interest story that was once headline news and takes a deep dive into it and what it has to say about humanity.  That story is less famous than the one talked about in The Witness (I’d never heard of it) but it was apparently a big deal when it happened in the 70s and involved two people who encountered each other more or less by chance and realized they were long lost twins and once this became a news story they discovered that they were actually an entire set of triplets that had been separated at birth and adopted by separate people.  This would not seem to be a story that could easily be told visually but the movie does have some news footage from their time in the spotlight to work with as well as home videos and makes reasonably dignified use of reenactments to tell the story of how the three first met and a couple of other key moments.  Mostly though, the film uses talking head footage and you get the impression that the guy who made it is quite the Errol Morris fan given the movie’s form and tone.  I don’t want to give away too much about the film’s second half, but there is a bit of a twist that is worth keeping secret and what follows is a pretty interesting mediation on nature vs. nurture and medical ethics.

**** out of Five

Won’t You Be My Neighbor (7/22/2017)

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was a show I have some hazy memories of watching when I was a very small kid but it’s not necessarily something I remember as a childhood favorite.  Frankly I kind of feel in retrospect that it was a show my parents wanted me to like more than I actually did and compared to the flashy and entertaining cartoons of the era it was a bit dull.  However, this documentary about the life of Fred Rogers has gained massive acclaim, and its trailer seems to be promising that it would reframe Rogers as a true revolutionary on the air.  As an argument for Rogers’ show I found the film a bit lacking.  There’s a lot of talk about Rogers’ philosophy of childhood education but to me this philosophy just seemed like some rather run of the mill appeals to self-esteem, and while there’s nothing wrong with that exactly I’m not exactly sure it’s “revolutionary.”  The film is also interested in highlighting certain moments where Rogers’ show intersected with current events throughout the late 20th century, but it’s oddly light on the video of these reactions.  For example, there’s a moment where the film spends a few minutes setting up the Challenger disaster as a moment in history where Rogers’ would step up and inspire a nation, but then the movie only shows a couple of lines of what he had to say before moving on.  I would argue that a bigger part of his success was that he could act as something of a surrogate father for kids in an era where fathers were particularly distant and cold.  If I was a kid in the sixties and had some Don Draper type as a father I can see why having nice Mr. Rogers come in and act as a caring father figure in my mornings would be nice.  By the time I was personally in the target market Rogers had aged into more of a grandfather figure, which is probably part of why the appeal was a bit lost on me.  As for the documentary, its surprising box office success has largely been viewed as a response to the rise of Donald Trump given that Rogers’ kindly accepting wholesomeness is the exact opposite of Trumps’ mean-spirited assholery.  I can sort of see that, but Rogers’ appeal as a progressive hero is probably a bit limited outside of this particular moment and there are probably other heroes I’d prefer to put on a pedestal before him.

**1/2 out of Five

McQueen (8/3/2017)

The new documentary McQueen is not about Steve McQueen (either of them), rather it’s about a fashion designer named Alexander McQueen who turned out to be a rather tortured soul.  Needless to say McQueen is not a figure I was overly familiar with outside of the occasional Nicki Minaj shout out, but it turns out he was a fairly popular English designer during the 90s and 2000s who had his own line but also did work for other houses. He appears to be primarily famous less for his actual clothing that someone would actually wear and more for his extremely outlandish of runway shows, which he turned into these themed spectacles that intentionally set out to shock and disturb.  It was exactly the kind of stuff that Sasha Baron Cohen was making fun of with his Bruno character.   I can tell why the film would focus so heavily on these runway shows as they are pretty visually interesting even for someone like myself who is rather hostile to the very concept of haute couture, but I’m not sure they really get to the heart of McQueen’s work and they only gave a rather superficial insight into what made him tick as a person.  While the film is on the long end for a documentary I still don’t think the film ever quite got to the bottom of what made McQueen tick as a person or to fully explain what led him to kill himself at the age of forty.  I think part of the problem is that almost all the interview subjects here are McQueen’s friends and colleagues and I would have liked to hear from someone with a more critical take on his work and a more objective take on his life.

*** out of Five

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