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Staff Picks Category: Documentary

Lives Worth Living []

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When I went to the Northampton Senior Center for a special Northampton Commission on Disability screening of Lives Worth Living I didn’t know anything about the film or its subject the disability rights movements. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film was not just informative, but a well-crafted and incredibly moving introduction to the subject that left me eager to learn more.

At just 54 minutes in length, Lives Worth Living is too short to be more than an introduction to the story of disability rights (which it traces from the polio epidemics of the early twentieth century and the treatment of disabled veterans up to the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990), but it makes excellent use of the time it has. We briefly learn about the discrimination and negative attitudes faced by the people with disabilities who were too often assumed to be without potential or worth. We briefly learn about the shocking maltreatment of people with mental disorders and about the Willowbrook State School and the abuses that occurred there and at similar institutions throughout the country. We learn about the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and other early legislation, but more importantly we learn about the advocates who pushed to expand protections for the disabled, unifying diverse groups (associations for the blind, the physically handicapped, mental patients and others), and how disability rights became recognized as civil rights. And we learn about the protesters—the individuals who occupied buildings, locked themselves to bus shelters, and even crawled and pulled their way up the capitol steps to make their message heard.

Lives Worth Moving is a powerful film, well worth watching and relevant to us all. I cannot recommend it enough.

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Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic []

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Marina Zenovich’s film is an excellent portrait of comedian and actor Richard Pryor. We see all the brilliance, unflinching confidence, missteps, self-destruction, triumphs and pain. Omit the Logic hits the ground running with Pryor’s earliest televised stand-up appearances with a routine resembling what Bill Cobsy was up to in the early 1960’s. However, after a disastrous set in Las Vegas, Pryor disappears and later resurfaces in San Francisco as a completely unique, uncensored entertainer.

The film highlights much of Pryor’s autobiographical material. After a fair share of belly laughing at these classic, personal routines about his childhood, relationships with women and drug use, the documentary leads us to Pryor’s difficult past. Contemporaries, colleagues and followers such as Bob Newhart, Paul Mooney, Dave Chappelle, Mel Brooks, Robin Williams and Whoopie Goldberg contribute anecdotes to Pryor’s perplexing story. It’s both noble and heartbreaking how Richard Pryor persisted to find humor in the darkest of places.

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Sensation: The Story of Tommy []

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I first heard the Who’s Tommy as a teen or pre-teen after borrowing a copy from the Russell Library in Middletown, CT. That’s really the age to delve into both the angst and sensitivity of the Who… in fact, it’s the best time to explore music in general as that feeling of the world opening up to you begins. What followed this library trip was a huge Who obsession and, after the realization that Pete Townshend and I share a birthday, I was convinced there was some sort of connection between myself and the music. I’m sure I wasn’t the only teenager who felt this way.

Martin R. Smith’s documentary doesn’t focus on the stellar musicianship of the band (that coverage can be found anywhere… I mean, listen to a Who album!); rather, it leads the viewer through Tommy‘s high concepts and tells the story of a band in a state of transition. It is evident we have a “pre” & “post”-Tommy Who for the history books. Tommy, an album many consider as the first “rock opera”, legitimized Pete Townshend as a true composer, gave Roger Daltry the confidence to stand out front as the powerful lead singer (often in fringe), took the Who to opera houses around the world and turned the band into a stadium rock monster.

The film features interviews with Pete Townshend, Roger Daltry, John Entwhistle (archival), Keith Moon (archival), former Who manager Chris Stamp, Tommy album artist Mike McInnerney, Who biographers and a couple Rolling Stone Magazine nerds. It also has audio recordings of Townshend demos and several live performance clips.

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The Art of the Steal by Don Argott []

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The Art of the Steal is a documentary that addresses the issue of public ownership of artwork. Don Argott’s film focuses on a much heated conflict in the state of Pennsylvania concerning the Barnes Collection and Foundation. Albert Barnes, a wealthy chemist turned art collector, acquired one of the most stunning Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections in the world. He housed this uniquely curated collection along with a school as the Barnes Foundation in Lower Merion, PA. After his death in 1951, it was made clear by his will that the collection would not move nor would any of the work be sold under any circumstances.

Here’s where it gets interesting… Barnes’s wishes were not shared with many of the powerful Philadelphia politicians and society members. As management changed hands, the film highlights political nonsense and a long spiral of undermining of the collection’s owner over a sixty plus year period. Many issues arise in the dealings with the collection of art (now worth an estimated twenty-five billion dollars) and we really don’t have a clear cut understanding of whose interests are actually being served.

The Art of the Steal is a fascinating look into both the political and art worlds.

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Evocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie []

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Saying Morton Downey Jr. was a complex man would be the understatement of the century. Son of a famous singer, Jr. began his career in show business as a vocalist himself. He had a small hit with in 1958 with the haunting tune “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams”. He later worked in radio and eventually became involved with the world of sports by first buying an American Basketball Association team and later co-founding the World Baseball League.

What brought Morton Downey Jr. national attention was his short run on the syndicated Morton Downey Jr. Show based out of New Jersey. The host who grew up hanging around the Kennedy family, became a loudmouth, conservative screamer on his late 80’s program. The documentary pulled many clips that made the air where Downey Jr. gets in audience members faces and says some of the most horrific and offensive things you will ever hear in your life. His show seems to be pure theater and unfortunately it paved the way for future trash television such as the Jerry Springer Show.

Like him or not, Evocateur is a massively entertaining film. It’s an excellent documentary of the strange life and quick rise and fall of a man whose life was filled with controversy.

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Waking Sleeping Beauty []

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In Waking Sleeping Beauty, we go behind the doors of the Disney animation building and see an equal display of creative brilliance and management melodrama.  As the 1970’s drew to a close, the legendary animation studio was producing anemic box office returns (by Disney standards) and those in charge of the purse strings viewed its limping continuation simply as a tribute to Walt’s legacy.  Shifts in corporate leadership created new challenges to the once easy going, hippie-ish department and as a result, the company reached a range of highs and lows.

This film features interviews with animators, directors, composers and executives.  In addition, the curtain is lifted and we’re granted access to all sorts of behind the scenes footage.  We see the animators at work and goofing around, early film cuts and cells, actors recording voice-overs, corporate lectures, between take banter of Michael Eisner’s television introductions and even funeral speeches.  Waking Sleeping Beauty is a film for anyone who is interested in the history of the Disney empire and ever wondered how the magic is really created.

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F for Fake []

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Join Orson Welles in a one of a kind cinematic experience that examines many shades of the truth. 1973’s F for Fake is presented as an essay film; most definitely the first of its kind. Welles narrates the documentary often on camera with the appearance of a worldly travel host. While delivering literary quotations in a Brechtian style, interviewing subjects and delivering personal tales in his larger than life/life of the party personality, he incorporates a wide range of footage (including bit-lits from his recently abandoned projects) and edits various film formats in dramatic fashion.

At the heart of the movie, Welles discusses the parallels between notorious art forger Elmyr de Hory and the biographer Clifford Irving. Irving who settled in Ibiza working on the de Hory tale, later went on to create a fake of his own: a false biography of Hollywood tycoon Howard Hughes. The director weaves these and other scandals and also shines the light on his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast.

Though the content in F for Fake is presented as fact, the masterful Welles, a fan of the slight of hand, cannot resist the urge to play with his audience.

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Dr. John Teaches New Orleans Piano []

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I didn’t learn to play New Orleans style piano watching this DVD. You might, if you are already a competent pianist, or simply more patient than I am, but this is a rewarding movie whether you intend to become rock and roll pianist or not. Dr. John is an amazing musician; when he plays it looks easy, but just try following along at the piano!

Dr. John looks relaxed (though often worried, as if something else is on his mind). At times he hardly seems to move—but the piano keys move, quickly, and in syncopation, and the music is wonderful. He plays Frankie and Johnnie, C. C. Rider, Blueberry Hill, and others, playing each in some flavor of the New Orleans Rock and Roll, Fats Domino inspired, playing for which he is known. We are given an overhead view of the piano keyboard, as well as a more conventional angle from the side, which lets you really appreciate the fluidity with which the Doctor plays, and is invaluable if you want to try playing his licks yourself. He breaks many of the tunes down, playing the left hand or right hand parts separately, slowing down the tempo, or demonstrating alternative turn around and improvisations. He discusses what riffs are easiest when accompanying your own voice, and briefly describes the interaction between the pianist and the other members of the band.

I really enjoyed this DVD. In fact, I think I’ll probably revisit it in a few months—after I’ve practiced the piano a bit more!

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I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale by Richard Shepard []

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Though John Cazale isn’t a household name, the five feature films he appeared in during his short life are movies that are regarded as perennial American classics.  The character actor can be found in The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter.  To many he’s “the guy who played Fredo”, but to those who knew him and worked alongside, Cazale was an actor unlike any.
This short documentary consists of film clips, archival photos and footage and candid interviews from co-stars Meryl Streep (Streep and Cazale were also romantically involved), Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Gene Hackman.  Directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet and followers Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Rockwell are also featured providing analysis and admiration of Cazale’s artistry.
After watching I Knew It Was You, I feel compelled to revisit these films and look a little closer at this mysterious supporting character.

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Tabloid by Errol Morris []

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This documentary feature recalls the strange adventures Joyce McKinney, a former Wyoming beauty queen.  Using interviews with the woman herself, a pilot, an ex-Mormon, a British tabloid reporter, a photographer and a scientist in the field of cloning, we learn learn the bizarre history of McKinney.  While mostly relying on these talking head interviews in front of a greyish background with archival footage and cut and paste animation, Morris creates a riveting, suspenseful film.
It recalls a period in the late 1970’s when Joyce McKinney became a British tabloid star after flying to the U.K. with a small crew to “rescue” her estranged Mormon missionary boyfriend.  She claims he was brainwashed by members of the church and so she took him to an inn for three days to deprogram his brain.  His story differs.  Kirk Anderson (who did not wish to be interviewed for the documentary) had claimed that he was kidnapped at gunpoint, tied up and then raped by McKinney.  After the news broke, tabloid papers looked into the beauty queen’s history and produced several scandalous pieces.
While viewing Tabloid, a particular scene from the film Head seemed rather poignant.  The Swami tells Monkee Peter Tork, “all belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus, the study of history is simply the study of one system of beliefs deposing another, and so on and so on and so on…”  How will the story of Joyce McKinney’s life ultimately be documented?

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Where We Live: Steve Alves’ Western Massachusetts Film Collection []

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Filmmaker Steve Alves has been making movies about Franklin County since 1997.   These six short documentaries were produced over a period of several years and explore the cultural, economic and natural world from the hyper-local point of view.

Titles: Beneath the River (about the Connecticut) — A Sweet Tradition (maple syrup production), Together in Time (contra dancing) — Everyone’s Business (local entrepreneurs and economic history) — Life After High School (jobs and education) — Talking To The Wall (Big Box sprawl vs. small town Main Street).

If you live here it’s hard not to be fascinated by the lives going on around us, both human and environmental. Steve really gets it, and he’s a fine director too.  His company Hometown Productions is currently working on a new film called Food For Change. Watch for it!

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Page One: Inside the New York Times by Andrew Rossi []

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Andrew Rossi’s film Page One explores the role of print media in a rapidly changing technological landscape. The documentary goes inside the Eighth Avenue tower and we watch events unfold and become shaped into articles that eventually get delivered to our doorsteps.
The Internet has redirected the way in which many people seek information and this proves to be a financial threat to the survival of every newspaper. When Julian Assange’s initial YouTube barrage is dropped on the heads of the public, the Times writers not only have to think how to cover the event, they also need to ponder how it affects journalism on the whole. The WikiLeaks organization may upload footage, reach millions of people in a matter or moments and have little accountability in how they present their broadcast. The Times realizes that though they must follow the guidelines of responsible reporting, they still need to compete with this brand of information giving on some level.
Staff members are also profiled and followed around through the course of pitching and working on articles. We go inside meetings and presentations, too. David Carr, arguably the star of this film, is seen laying down the law in a meeting with Vice personnel, seeing his elderly father and giving a presentation on technology and media. Carr and many of the staff on screen, discuss the role of technology and Twitter and other social media.
Though the advertising and subscriptions that power the New York Times are at all time lows, the paper continues to move forward. Page One documents this tense, transitional period and shows the organization working on the fly to stay in the business.

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