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Tag Archive: documentaries


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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Troopers in the hall

Written and directed by Jon Spira and funded via Kickstarter, a new documentary about the making of the original Star Wars is coming your way, and it’s not anything you will find in the special features of your twelve editions of the original trilogy in your home video collection.  Elstree 1976 is a time travel trip to visit some of the more obscure actors who portrayed characters who, except for one, would not make either the poster credits or, for some, even the movie’s end credits.

Yet each of the characters they portrayed became famous because of the historic success of Star Wars, and the fact that so many have seen the film so many times that every frame of the film has taken on its own life in the annals of sci-fi/fantasy cinema history.  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?

Elstree 1976 poster

Spira selected ten actors to be featured in his film.  The documentary includes interviews with actors who filmed scenes at Elstree Studios in England in 1976.  The most well-known are David Prowse (Darth Vader), Jeremy Bulloch (The Empire Strikes Back’s Boba Fett), and Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter), whose scenes were cut by director George Lucas, only to be re-inserted into the Special Edition in the 1990s.

Comic Con with Boba Fett Jeremy Bulloch Bunce

Your Editor with Jeremy Bulloch and the character he made famous a long, long, time ago.

Other actors included are Paul Blake (Greedo), Anthony Forrest (Luke’s friend Fixer and the Jedi-tricked Sandtrooper), Laurie Goode (Stormtrooper and cantina patron Saurin), Derek Lyons (temple guard/medal bearer), Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader), Pam Rose (cantina patron Leesub Sirln) and John Chapman (X-Wing pilot Red 12).

Here’s the trailer for the documentary Elstree 1976:

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1971 movie poster

On March 8, 1971, more than a year before Watergate, during the popular televised Muhammed Ali vs Joe Frazier fight, eight individuals broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole every file, and proceeded to expose the FBI’s illegal scheme of surveillance and intimidation of citizens including Martin Luther King, Jr.  All of these illegal FBI practices had been condoned by FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover and President Richard Nixon.  Four decades before Edward Snowden leaked similar information about illegal surveillance of Americans, this small group, called The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, did the same thing.  Director Johanna Hamilton has documented the accounts of the break-in and lasting implications that began in Media, Pennsylvania, in her documentary 1971, now available on DVD and streaming video.

Like All the President’s Men, that gripping account of the Watergate break-in by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, this far less known burglary completely unraveled the taut fabric of the federal government’s surveillance program, resulting in the temporary cessation of invasions of privacy and illuminating the intimidation tactics the government was using on individual rights activists.  Hamilton’s documentary combines a re-enactment of the days leading up to the break-in and interviews with five of the eight members of The Citizens’ Commission who planned the burglary, risking their families’ futures to uncover concrete documentation of the detailed, planned and FBI-endorsed illegalities.  No one was ever arrested for the theft of the documents and subsequent disclosure to the press, although all but one of the planners ended up on the FBI’s list of suspects.

1971 documentary clip

Hamilton’s storytelling is gritty and heart-pounding, the stuff of a great, classic suspense mystery, with a gripping score by Philip Sheppard.  The laundry list of ludicrous government programs exposed is simply jaw-dropping, how leaders of any generation could condone such clearly wrong ideas, like monitoring local neighborhood ladies’ groups, planting federal watchdogs among activist groups, and using fear to intimidate anyone who wouldn’t toe the line of the government’s actions without question.  Would Watergate have played out the same way without the events in 1971?  Would J. Edgar Hoover have been exposed as the crook that he was and would his COINTELPRO program have been shut down without the discovery of one of the documents uncovered by The Citizens’ Commission?  1971 is on par with the greatest documentary classics, such as Harlan County, U.S.A.

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Tims Vermeer poster

Review by C.J. Bunce

Whether learned or innate, the skill of a master artist is like nothing else.  That is true no less for the understanding of color, light, and shadow exhibited by 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. His work is lifelike, so much so that a Texas-based inventor devoted years of his life to try to understand why Vermeer painted in a style so much different from his peers.  The result is Tim’s Vermeer, a masterful documentary by director Teller of Las Vegas magic act duo Penn and Teller fame, in limited theatrical release last year and now available on Blu-ray, DVD and Video On Demand.

Scientists and artists for hundreds of years have speculated what tools Vermeer might have used to achieve his mastery, other than his sheer artistic genius.  He left no notes to this effect to assist scholars.  Tim Jenison, a successful businessman with time to devote to an immense intellectual pursuit, spent years speculating, then he created his own optical device involving a simple mirror that would allow anyone to replicate perfectly any image.  This is an even bigger feat than one might expect, because Jenison is not, and never was, an artist.  Friends Penn & Teller accompanied Jenison on his research, meeting with experts and artists, and ultimately the magic duo decided to film Jenison’s journey of discovery.  Teller directs (and co-produces with Jellette) and Jellette narrates this unusual and enlightening story.

Vermeer and Jenison compared

Which is which? Tim Jenison learns what may be Vermeer’s technique in Penn & Teller’s documentary.

Does Jenison get it right or not?  Penn leaves that question to the viewer, but he and Jenison give an abundance of reasons to support Jenison’s study.  The mission was simple:  Can a layman paint something as well as Vermeer with tools that would have been available to Vermeer in the 17th century?

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Room 237 biking

More so than Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or The Shining, writer/director Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 seeks and finds the heart of obsession and insanity.

But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Documentaries often feature thought-provoking, intelligent, smart people with some appropriate credentials espousing new theories.  You will likely walk away from Room 237 thinking your own descriptive words about the participants in the film.  These may include:  Eccentrics.  Crackpots.   Batshit crazy.  Although the film gives these participants ample opportunity to prove their theories, and despite some obvious effort on their part, no rational person would likely use these words to describe them by film’s end:  Geniuses.  Visionaries.  Lucid.

The title Room 237 comes from the numbered hotel room in the Kubrick film adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, where a lot of the terrifying horror plot is centered.  (King reportedly hated Kubrick’s adaptation of his book).  The documentary is predominantly the voices of five fanatics who have watched The Shining far too many times for their own good, who we never actually see in the film.  The voices are carried over clips of a variety of Kubrick movies that serve to attempt to prove the theories being discussed.  Room 237 was acclaimed by a number of critics and was named an official selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and nominated for several other awards.

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