Tag Archive: documentaries


Review by C.J. Bunce

From Hong Kong to the U.S. and Australia to Uganda, Australian director Serge Ou and writer Grady Hendrix track the scope of the Hong Kong kung fu movie industry and its pop culture influence on the world in the documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, now streaming this month on Netflix.  Splicing interviews with kung fu legends of the past with new discussions with martial artists and actors influenced by them, Ou offers up a surprisingly rich look at how and why kung fu movies gained an international following that continues to this day via Jackie Chan comedies, the Matrix movies (with a sequel due in theaters next year), and new television series like Wu Assassins and Iron Fist. 

Beneath what is in essence an overview of the genre is a smart mixture of social and cultural commentary on a global phenomenon centered on an artform mixing athleticism, dance, and grace.  Kung fu made its way to American audiences with Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, and into millions of homes via the Kung Fu series.  This was paralleled by Bruce Lee movies and lesser films (they call them Bruce-sploitation) from China and U.S. studios, direct-to-video crotch-kicking and “squirrel-grabbing” action on VHS tapes in video stores, heroines leading the way as a sub-genre, eventually moving to black and inner city audiences embracing the culture, starting with martial artist and actor Jim Kelly (who co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon), re-emerging later as an influence on hip hop music.  The genre got even bigger boosts with Jackie Chan heavy-stunt comedies, followed by The Matrix and the Academy Awards arrival of the genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Chinese co-productions with other nations, and actors of Chinese background in the mainstream outside of Asia would eventually come along.

Viewers meet (or revisit) early kung fu icons Cheng Pei-Pei and Sammo Hung in new interviews, along with Billy Banks, who would turn the genre into his own fortune via the creation of the Tae Bo workout, early American female kung fu star Cynthia Rothrock, martial artist Richard Norton, plus from the 21st century shows, Iron Fist actor Jessica Henwick, Wu Assassins actor JuJu Chan, Doctor Strange actor Scott Adkins, and Marvel stuntwoman and choreographer Amy Johnston, among others.  It’s all interspersed with great action sequences and other clips from more than 100 films.  A theme underscoring much of kung fu movie history is a distinct lack of safety standards, with more than one participant in the documentary stressing that Hong Kong kung fu movies couldn’t be made anywhere else for that reason.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Following up on The Toys That Made Us (previously reviewed here at borg), Netflix’s surprise hit documentary series leaning on viewers’ nostalgia with a look behind select high-profile toy lines of the past, this weekend the streaming provider added a new series based on the same formula.  The Movies That Made Us takes a four episode-per-season look at what someone somewhere thinks are important movies in the national consciousness.  The series arrives nicely timed, since season three of The Toys That Made Us already is showing signs the studio has run out of ideas.

Like The Toys That Made Us, the new series isn’t really about the subject of the series, instead taking viewers on a deep, dark dive into the business world of pop culture.  Like the first series, The Movies That Made Us has some fascinating gold nuggets.  It also has its problems.  The biggest issue being the odd introductory selection of movies, and the second, the glaring omission of key players viewers want to see interviewed for the stories.  As for the first issue, understandably the show is trying to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers.  But it seems highly unlikely any single person, whether a movie buff or casual moviegoer, would put the following four movies on their list of must-see films: Dirty Dancing, Home Alone, Ghostbusters, and Die Hard As for the second problem, part of the issue is the series is too late to the table.  So many of the key players behind and in front of the camera in these films have died, like Ghostbusters writer/actor Harold Ramis, Dirty Dancing director Emile Ardolino and co-stars Patrick Swayze and Jerry Orbach, Home Alone writer John Hughes, and Die Hard actors Alan Rickman and Alexander Godunov and writer Roderick Thorp.  But people die and that shouldn’t hold up a good story, except that so many players that could have been interviewed who are living also didn’t participate.  A documentary about Dirty Dancing without star Jennifer Grey?  Die Hard without Bruce Willis?  Ghostbusters without Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, or Rick Moranis?  And the clincher… they couldn’t get Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci, or Catherine O’Hara to say anything about Home Alone?

It really gets to the point of audience expectation.  Movie buffs will enjoy this series’ first season even if they didn’t care for the films, simply because it’s always going to be interesting for them to watch the wheeling and dealing of the studio machine told from the people who were there.  In that regard, the episodes about Dirty Dancing and Home Alone were entertaining by virtue of their tales of odd ideas that managed to emerge like the phoenix from dead deals to become major box office successes through a lot of luck and happenstance (told nicely in the episodes).  And the same was true for The Toys That Made Us, although after nine episodes an hour of the retired talking heads of Toyland has lost its luster.  To that end, the series should be called something more accurate, like The Making of the Movies That Made Us, etc.  But even that would set the expectation that you’d see more than talking heads interspersed with fuzzy snapshots from productions of the past.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

From an educational standpoint and an historian’s eye, the Holocaust is the most important subject of study for anyone to understand why humans look to the past for answers.  Every aspect of historical scholarship can be found in studies of the subject, understanding politics, religion, power, discrimination, survival, and the worst potential of mankind.  A powerful new documentary takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a grandson and great-granddaughter of one artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), whose vivid, stunning expressionist and minimalist paintings document a broad look at life, tradition, and culture in Jewish Poland prior to World War II.  Produced, directed, and written by his great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rynecki, Chasing Portraits illustrates the competing challenges in the debate over the repatriation of cultural artifacts, as it also pulls in issues of borders, the distance of time, and the critical importance of studying art history.

Once you get past the first minutes, which seem to be filmed on an old camcorder, this amateur documentary steps up into a compelling journey, thanks in part to a musical score that ties it all together, by Matthias Zimmerman.  The German Nazis murdered Moshe Rynecki in a concentration camp in Warsaw in 1943.  Many of his more than 800 paintings and some of his sculptures and carvings were smuggled out.  Hundreds were taken out by his son and her wife, who escaped Warsaw with their young boy, the documentarian’s father.  Other works fall into the categories of gifts, works purchased legally, and works that may have been stolen and resold.  Elizabeth Rynecki first meets with her father in her documentary, whose house walls are lined with his grandfather’s paintings.  She also points to a closet where several works are rather haphazardly stacked, no doubt viewed only by few people over the past 70 years.  In one moment her father replaces a framed piece that falls to the side with a thunk.  This becomes a key scene–although it’s not clear that the director realizes it–as she does not circle back to it later.  It’s key because she begins a journey of discovery that takes her from the U.S. to Poland and Jerusalem, inside major museums and private collections, in part to reclaim what she believes are paintings that rightfully belong to her family today.  By the end of the film she acknowledges that tens of millions of visitors have admired her great-grandfather’s works in the museums, and she interviews museum directors that have clearly given the paintings the care any curator would give to his/her collections.

The question for the viewer becomes one of moral rights and legal rights–the debate over repatriation of cultural and artistic works.  And the crux of the debate over where these cultural works belong today–to descendants in private collections or on display in national museums as educational tools for a vastly wider audience.  Eventually Ms. Rynecki files a claim for three works held by a private person in Jerusalem, whose method of acquiring the works is questioned.  But ultimately she retracts the claim.  Along the way she interviews her father, who says he clearly would prefer to forget his memories of Poland during the war.  Yet he complies with his daughter’s requests to document his memories, until it becomes too much for him emotionally and physically.  Clearly there is importance to the works, to his experience, and to sharing both with future generations, and Ms. Rynecki encounters numerous crises of conscience as she takes each step forward in her pursuit.  How far should she go?  How far is enough?  Her time travel to the past explores these questions and much more.

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Today marks the first day of a new streaming service, Ovid.tv, a film access platform combining the efforts of eight U.S. independent film distributors.  The new service is one effort to fill the gap left behind by the demise of FilmStruck, a favorite of cinephiles that was closed down by AT&T after acquiring Time Warner.  Initial film distributors providing content to Ovid.tv include First Run Features, Women Make Movies, Bullfrog Films, The dGenerate Films Collection, Distrib Films US, Grasshopper Film, Icarus Films, and KimStim, with more companies expected to add content to the service.  The goal of the platform is to provide North American viewers access to thousands of titles not yet available on other streaming platforms.  Initial content includes several of filmdom’s best documentaries, and on Day One more than 350 films are available for immediate streaming.

In a trial run of the platform, we immediately took in a screening of the award-winning film 56 Up, which has been called the greatest use ever for the film medium.  It’s simply one of the best dramas ever captured on-screen.  We reviewed it seven years ago here at borg, and now is a perfect time to screen the film for the first time, or to watch it again, as director/producer Michael Apted has recently wrapped the next segment in the film series, 63 Up, expected to be released later this year.  We also found The Penguin Counters streaming on Ovid.tv, a great film previously reviewed here at borg.  Social issues, auteur filmmakers, and foreign and domestic art house features fill out the initial round of content, including the works of filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Patricio Guzman, Heddy Honigmann, Chris Marker, Ross McElwee, Bill Morrison, Raoul Peck, Jean Rouch, Wang Bing, and Travis Wilkerson.  Works of others are expected to be added in the coming months, from the likes of Bi Gan, Pedro Costa, Claire Denis, Bruno Dumont, Cheryl Dunye, Philippe Garrel, Nikita Mikhalkov, Eric Rohmer, Raul Ruiz, Dominga Sotomayor, and Jean-Marie Straub.

Notable fiction features available today include the independent production mystery I, Anna, starring Charlotte Rampling and Gabriel Byrne, the Japanese horror film Creepy by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the award-winning The Widowed Witch by Cai Chengjie, and Shoehei Imamura’s 1967 film, A Man Vanishes.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

The first ten minutes of the new CNN documentary film Three Identical Strangers is intriguing enough to merit a major motion picture adaptation.  The film re-tells the story of an adopted teenager who steps into the life of someone else on his first day at community college, only to find that he had an unknown identical twin brother who attended the school the prior year.  Director Tim Wardle‘s introduction and interview with Robert Shafran, now 57, and the best friend who in 1981 knew the newfound twin brother, Eddy Galland, and was shocked to meet Robert on campus, is the kind of exciting filmmaking that illustrates why there are fans of documentaries.

But that was only the first unlikely collision of events.  Only days later when the story was published in New York newspapers, another teen, David Kellman, born on the same day, was reading the story, and his mother showed him the photographs of the twins that looked identical to him.  Identical triplets, adopted out of the same agency, which had separated the triplets at birth instead of trying to place them into a single home.

The story was reported everywhere back in 1980, on shows like Donahue, and the triplets would go on to appear in a scene with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan in 1985.  Only the collective forgetfulness of a country of the men’s 15 minutes of fame allowed the story to fade away over the decades.  But there was more to the story, and Wardle would put together a contemporary writer’s research and remnants of the past, busting open a psychological study that breached any sensible person’s ethics.  The triplets weren’t merely studied from afar, their families were specifically targeted for placement, and their parents conned into letting the researchers into their homes each year for subsequent testing.  And yet there’s still more to the story, as Wardle interviews other relatives, an investigative reporter, and two former researchers involved in the study.  It’s a creepy look into the kind of science carried on by Nazi Germany during World War II and banned by the medical profession since, all with an eye toward digging into the battle between nature vs nurture in determining who each individual is in life and what they become.

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Back for another four episodes, the documentary-style series about toy lines and toy companies of the past The Toys That Made Us is now streaming on Netflix with its Season 2.  As with the first four episodes reviewed here at borg.com in January, the series really isn’t a show for kids, but a behind-the-scenes account of the good and the bad of the history of the toy business.  Because of the toy lines covered in this short Season 2–LEGO, Transformers, Hello Kitty, and Star Trek–expect a more international flavor to the show’s coverage than of Star Wars, G.I. Joe, Barbie, and Masters of the Universe.  You can’t get around the fact that this is about business and business politics, with the added opportunity for those who just want to spot their very favorite toy of their youth to shout out during at least one of the episodes, “I had one of those!”

Back is the sugar-coated dialogue of the enthusiastic narrator Donald Ian Black.  The series continues to be of value mostly for the gold nuggets nestled within its lighthearted framework.  Excerpts of an interview with former Mego President Marty Abrams tops the list.  Despite the high highs and the low lows of his days leading Mego, Abrams seems to have been in the middle of a great time for the toy biz, seen in the first of the new episodes, where he admits passing up the deal to secure the valuable Star Wars account, supposedly for being out-of-town at the time.  The episode of Transformers is surprisingly emotional, including interviews with Optimus Prime himself, lo-o-o-ong-time animated film voice actor Peter Cullen (who was also the voice of Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore), and the much revered Hideaki Yoke, the Japanese company Takara’s lead designer responsible for the brilliant puzzle-piece designs of the vast Transformers line of characters.  As with Masters of the Universe, comic books were important to the development and success of Transformers, and viewers will learn Hello Kitty originated with comic book artists.  The most unexpected storytelling may come from the Hello Kitty episode.  Hello Kitty, a Japan-originated phenomenon turned international craze not tied to any book, TV series, or film, benefited from the coup of celebrities using the products publicly (without paying endorsement fees).  The discussion of the Japan cultural concept of kawaii and its relationship to the development of the Hello Kitty brand, character, and mythos will come as a surprise to most.

For Star Trek fans the episode featuring the franchise’s toy pursuits might have a few surprises.  Yes, that crazy Spock and Kirk helmet from the 1960s rears its ugly head again.  It’s too bad the show feels the need to explain what each franchise is first (we probably wouldn’t be watching if we didn’t), because fans would probably instead rather hear more about subjects the show creators didn’t leave time for.  We were looking for a discussion of the advance release of a line of Star Trek Generations action figures with costume styles that were changed before the film was released (a rare mishap), coverage of the very extensive (and once popular) line of attractive 12-inch scale action figures, the scope of the segment of Playmates company toys featuring characters from not only the series (discussed) but the movies through Star Trek: First Contact, and a little about the “why” of decisions behind toy releases, like why every NextGen line seemed to have two different Worf figures.  From the LEGO segment viewers learn a comprehensive overview of the company, plus some interesting bits like the fact that the early color scheme was directly inspired by the artist Mondrian, and that the outer space series caused the modern line of toys to really take off.  LEGO goes back some 80 years, and the history of the town that made it famous and impact of the brand is a great piece of history.  As with the rest of the episodes business and marketing trends are a great focus, and the 1958 LEGO patent for the interlocking brick–and loss of the patent–is part of that.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

For those who think that solving the rift between Palestine and Israel can be mediated, a new documentary illustrates clearly why that may not be the case.  Oscar-nominated, 85-year-old filmmaker Hava Kohav Beller films a group of young men and women students from both sides of the centuries’ old conflict at the seventh year of a “Vacation from War” retreat as part of her new documentary In the Land of Pomegranates.  Her film is both a hopeful and a hopeless look at life today in a world where terrorism is a weekly experience.  The pomegranates in the title are symbolic of the frequent grenades and bombings in Israel, Palestine, and the Occupied Territories.

Shuffled among the student discussions are glimpses into the lives of others on both sides, back home.  We meet the leader of the “Vacation from War,” Mohammed Joudeh, a 50-year-old Palestinian and former prisoner trying to change the world for the better through constructive dialogue.  Another story looks to a Palestinian woman bringing her son across the border to an Israeli doctor for a dangerous heart surgery–the doctor, of course, having no care for the ethnicity of the child whose life he saves.  The boy leaves to go home angry as any kid in the hospital might be.  Will he ever acknowledge how someone viewed as being from the “enemy” saved his life?  Another story follows an Israeli survivor of a suicide bombing, whose post-traumatic stress disorder renders him unable to function as a normal person, and ultimately his family splits apart.  The other story follows an Israeli woman who escapes to Tel Aviv from her house near the wall at Gaza when a tunnel is found nearby, and later returns to her home.  Her kids tell about sending Chinese lanterns over the wall, and imagine were someone to send them back they would either include signs of peace or warnings of more bombs.  The kids call the bombs and nightmares “routine,” yet view their lives as good.  In the end the war continues.  Rockets are fired.  New reports shows bombs and destruction.  A dead child lies bloody and dead in his father’s hands–the side he is from does not matter.

Audiences can’t help being hopeful for the students in the film.  This is the next generation of leaders of these nations.  The young men and women who travel to neutral ground in Germany for the retreat look like any group of students from any school, eager, wide-eyed, and optimistic.  But the intransigence and impasse we see once they face each other reveals what everyone knows:  Nobody has a solution, least of all these kids.  As with any group of students, as they begin their discussions what really comes through are the echoes of their parents and their parents’ beliefs.  The baggage of decades of war and dissonance between these groups can’t be ironed out among the young, and where the audience may be hopeful of anyone with words of peace, it doesn’t really happen.  Viewers may find themselves struggling with these kids’ words and those off-camera leaders running the sessions–why put the students on opposite sides of the room?  Why not sit them in a circle alternating Israeli and Palestinian?  Or would they not agree to that?  Both sides’ reactions to a visit to a Holocaust museum accentuate the vitriol between the two groups:  The Palestinian students claim they experience worse conditions from Israel on a daily basis than the others’ ancestors who faced the Holocaust.  The Israeli students are offended even at the idea.  A conversation where an Israeli student asks for acknowledgement from the Palestinian students of the existence of Israel is only answered with questions.  Frustration is in everyone’s faces.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

This week the world celebrates the inimitable penguin, now known to number at 12 million across Antarctica.  Yesterday was World Penguin Day, and this week is the premier of The Penguin Counters, a wonderful new documentary from First Run Features with initial screenings at Cinema Village in New York City this week.  Lawyer-turned-penguin researcher Ron Naveen has spent two decades studying and counting penguin populations, releasing the first “State of Antarctic Penguins” report this week.

The Penguin Counters, directed by Peter Getzels and Harriet Gordon, follows Naveen as he leads an excursion of researchers to the Antarctic with the task of counting all the penguins on the continent one by one, over the course of a week.  By doing so Naveen demonstrates what most of the scientific community knows–that populations of certain species of penguins (Adélies and chinstraps) have dwindled over the past 20 years–but Naveen now can back that up with actual data.  He and his team also learned that other populations, such as the gentoo, have learned to adapt and increase their numbers.  One of the key causes of the declining populations is that a primary food source, krill, are dying from warming temperatures.  In the film Naveen points to one mass of the tiny crustaceans beached from the record warming ocean temperatures as evidence.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Getzels and Gordon take viewers along on an amazing trip where few have gone before, to a treacherous and strikingly beautiful place that one of the researchers says he sought out for having the qualities of a completely different planet with similarly unique landscapes and animal life.  Unlike the typical wildlife documentary showing the “circle of life,” this film shows the positive world of the penguins as Naveen & Co. encounter them, with their tens of thousands of nests across the frozen lands.  The filmmakers take two tangent trips along the way, one to visit the final burial ceremony in the Falkland Islands in 2011 of Frank Wild, Sir Ernest Shackleton’s “right-hand man” on his famous Antarctic voyage of exploration (his remains were only recently discovered).  The other follows Naveen as he explores the site of a former processing plant for giant whales, now abandoned and taken over by its own local animal inhabitants.

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Troopers in the hall

Review by C.J. Bunce

Written and directed by Jon Spira and funded via Kickstarter, a documentary about the making of the original Star Wars is now available in the U.S. via Netflix after a release last year in the UK and limited-city U.S. theatrical release this summer.  Elstree 1976 is a time travel trip to visit some of the more obscure actors who portrayed characters and, except for Darth Vader actor Dave Prowse, would not make either the poster credits or, for some, even the movie’s end credits.

Yet each of the characters they portrayed became known by diehard Star Wars fans because of its historic success.  Spira’s documentary asserts 2 billion people on Earth have seen Star Wars–something like 25% of the planet’s population.  Perhaps even a fleeting image of an actor in such a universally acknowledged work justifies our fascination with even the most obscure bit player (see George Lucas’s Frames, reviewed here and here at borg.com, for instance).  Remember the Stormtrooper who uttered the line “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for… move along”?  What about Luke’s friends from the deleted Tatooine scenes?  Or one of the actors who claims to be the Stormtrooper who cracked his head on the door aboard the Death Star?

Elstree 1976 poster

Spira selected ten actors to be featured in his film.   Hundreds more could be seen in a similar documentary or documentaries made tomorrow.  But what fascinates is that just as Star Trek actors will tell you about how you never leave Star Trek once you play any part in the franchise, the same holds true for Star Wars.  The convention circuit has breathed new life into careers and new opportunities to make money.  Unlike many films about fans of big franchises, this documentary is quite respectful of the fans, not showing them as oddities.  Most of the actors interviewed are respectful and grateful to the fanbase, too.  The only downside is the uncomfortable politics of the convention circuit among these actors–a few see themselves as a higher status of guest and believe others should not be going to conventions, which sort of misses the point of conventions altogether.

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makin moving posters

If you’ve watched any number of the documentaries or read about the artists that created classic movie posters in the 20th century, you can’t help but notice a subtext about the small circle of artists that became well known for their work.  Ego and competition among artists is a recurring theme.  In 2014 here at borg.com we looked at Drew Struzan via a documentary exclusively about him and his work.  Three books discussed here are about Struzan’s contributions to movie poster art.  A new book in 2014 chronicled works by John Alvin, reviewed here, and another book reviewed here documented the movie posters created for the Star Wars franchise alone.   Originals of some lesser Bob Peak poster art are being offered at more than $6,000 here.  In 2014 the greatest collection of movie posters ever assembled was offered at auction, discussed here.  Movie posters are still popular and do not appear to be fading away anytime soon.

In most accounts and interviews, movie poster artists of the past 50 years lament the decline of the movie poster.  But has that ever really been true?  Isn’t every artist in every medium always faced with competition from new creators and new tools of the trade?  Every year countless artists design movie posters that entice moviegoers.  Should we really be discounting creators who aren’t using pencils or paints to create the final product?  And is it enough for fans of movie posters that options like Mondo and new, up-and-coming poster artists are looking back and providing updated views of films via their poster releases?

24x36

Director Kevin Burke’s latest look at movie posters, called 24X36 to reflect the size of the standard marquee print, focuses on two classic poster artists, John Alvin and Roger Castel, Alvin known for countless posters for blockbusters and Castel for his often reproduced Jaws poster art.  The documentary also steps forward with interviews and discussions with more recent artists in the craft, including William Stout, Jason Edmiston, Laurent Durieux, and Gary Pullin.  We’ve looked at the works of Laurent Durieux here at borg.com previously.

Here’s a preview of the documentary 24X36:

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