Advertisements

Tag Archive: great documentaries


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.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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?

Continue reading

McQueen The Blob

Cancel your weekend plans. Hulu.com is letting anyone in the U.S. watch their Criterion Collection of films now through Monday, February 18 at this linkFree.  I’ve just watched the first 20 minutes of Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai for the umpteenth time.  The only limitation is how many movies you can watch in the next 72 hours.

The selection includes all the big Criterion films you would expect.  You can watch Kurasawa’s Hidden Fortress, which along with Seven Samurai, were two of George Lucas’s major influences for Star Wars.  There’s also Kurasawa’s Rashomon, Sanjuro, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, Stray Dog, Scandal, Drunken Angel… The list goes on.  And if classic Japanese Samurai films aren’t your thing, you might try what we at borg.com listed as the number one Western of all time in our top 10 list back in 2011–John Ford’s 1939 classic Stagecoach.  Or try something totally different, Steve McQueen in The Blob?  Or a comedy–Walter Matthau in Hopscotch?

Hidden Fortress

Continue reading