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Staff Picks: Movies

Under the Influence

Those who know me know that I love to watch movies. I also enjoy learning about the historical development of the art form of movie-making, including the evolution of  its ideas, practices, technological changes, influences, major innovators, and economics. The 1970’s was an important era in film-making and the documentary film A Decade Under the Influence: The 70’s Films That Changed Everything is required viewing for those interested in the medium. Many of America’s best directors emerged in the wake of the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1960's to tackle new subjects with raw, unfiltered candor and artistic verve. This film tells their story. 

The Wolfpack

One of the most buzzed about documentaries this spring was The Wolfpack. At its core, it is a story that is more disquieting than redemptive, less a film about maladjusted, eccentric teens rising above their troubled childhoods and more a film about abused children who will likely struggle to develop healthy perspectives as adults. The film chronicles the life of the Angulo family, a clan comprised of an emotionally abused mother, a sister, six brothers, and an overbearing, paranoid father who believes that the outside world is a dangerous environment, one that will negatively influence the tribe like structure of the family. 

Not allowed to leave the apartment nor to attend school, the young boys come to call themselves 'The Wolfpack' and proceed to develop identities linked to the television shows and movies they watch. This method of play sees the boys re-enacting scenes from their favorite films like Reservoir Dogs and No Country for Old Men. As the film proceeds, the boys begin to resist the harsh control of their powerful father, escaping the apartment and discovering a rich and complicated world. While it came off as ultimately unsatisfying for me, it's an intriguing, if not problematic enterprise that also raises questions about the filmmaker's approach to creating a reality show-like verisimilitude.        

Varda in California

Legendary French director Agnes Varda has made several groundbreaking features that have stood the test of time (La Pointe Courte, Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond). During the late 1960's and early 1980's, while residing in California she produced a handful of poetically rendered slice of life documentaries that range in subject from a portrait of The Black Panther Party to Los Angeles mural culture. The recently released and fully restored Agnes Varda in California shows that she's always had an interest in integrating elements of real life into her fictionalized films and vice versa. Her sweet portrait of an old family relative (Uncle Yanco) perfectly captures the colorful vibe of late 1960's counter culture.

Election Season

With another presidential election cycle upon us, I noticed the documentary Please Vote For Me on display in the lower level.  The office open is class monitor for a 3rd grade class in a school in Wuhan, China, having its first democratic election.  

As they navigate the challenge of giving speeches, sharing a talent, participating in debates, and other activities to win votes; there are plenty of laughs, a lot of tears and occasionally some shouting.    

I found the interactions with the parents to be the most fascinating parts as they often gave advice that I was not expecting.  Also, when their children were ridiculed or treated poorly, they usually coached them on being tougher and shrugging it off, rather than going to the school to ask them to not allow such behavior.  

Who will win?  Cheng Cheng with charisma to spare, strict Luo Lei with powerful parents, or Xu Xiaofei the courageous underdog candidate.  

I watched this with my 10 year old daughter and 12 year old son and they really enjoyed it and it led to some good conversation about election tactics and cultural differences.  

IRL PT.2: Bathroom Noises

In part one of my series on unique and important documentaries, I wrote about The Act of Killing, a film that tackled the Indonesian genocide of the 1960s, the perpetrators of which are still in power to this day, never having faced consequences for their heinous crimes. This month, I want to discuss a revelatory true-crime docuseries, the subject of which has also eluded any kind of adequate punishment.

A lot of attention was paid this year to HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst—in no small part due to the arrest of the titular subject one day before the final episode was broadcast. If you’re unfamiliar with Durst, he is the wealthy and eccentric black sheep of a New York real estate dynasty who has been suspected of three murders: his wife who has been missing since 1982; a longtime friend who may or may not have assisted him in the disappearance of his wife; and an elderly neighbor whom Durst dismembered while on the lam in Galveston, Texas, where he was hiding out dressed as a woman. Durst himself approached director Andrew Jarecki about doing an interview; Jarecki had previously made a fictionalized version of Durst’s story in the film All Good Things, which starred Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. Durst believed Jarecki could be the right guy to help clear his name. Needless to say, Durst’s lawyers weren’t thrilled with the idea of putting a camera on him—and for good reason.

The six-part series is a well-researched and finely-crafted true-crime documentary, but what makes The Jinx so unique is Durst himself: the man is a blinking, jittery study in sociopathy. In interviews, his face is a map of deceit and misdirection; and when confronted with damning evidence in the final episode, Durst exhibits a strange, uncontrollable burping—a physiological manifestation of guilt not dissimilar from the violent retching seen by the mass murderer at the center of The Act of Killing. The real coup de grâce against Durst comes, however, a few moments later, when he visits a restroom unaware that his microphone is still hot. I’ll leave you to discover his final solitary confessional for yourself, but I can assure you, there’s never been a moment like it on film before.


The Magnificent Ambersons

After watching the illuminating and highly entertaining documentary Magician: the astonishing life and work of Orson Welles, a film timely released to celebrate the centennial birth of the incomparable genius behind the 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, I thought it compulsory to sing the praises of Kane’s 1943 follow up, The Magnificent Ambersons—just one of many of Welles’ films shrouded in controversy and legend. After the success of Kane, Welles decided again to focus on a rise and fall motif, this time concentrating on the decline of an entire Midwestern family’s fortune and standing as pride, generational conflict and ideological stasis erodes family unity. It’s a great film as it stands but there are many Welles purists who would argue that the “real” work has yet to be seen. After completing a rough cut of the film, Welles departed to Brazil in order to work on a wartime film called It’s All True. While overseas, RKO Radio Pictures (the studio) took over production of the film, including re-cutting the original and shooting additional scenes against the protestation of Welles. It has been argued that the Welles cut differs dramatically with the studio version, including the ending of the film and overall tone.

The King Speaks: The true story behind the film

Queen Elizabeth II is currently Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. She was crowned Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 25, on June 2, 1953, a year after the death of her father King George VI. Her father was nicknamed Bertie by his family. Bertie was a shy man and he had a lifelong speech impediment: he stuttered. He didn’t like public speaking. Bertie was the second eldest child of George V. Bertie wore leg braces as a result of being knock-kneed. He was left handed, but he was forced to write with his right hand. Bertie’s older brother was much more suited for being king, he was elegant, self-assured, and confident. He became King Edward VIII. Unfortunately, he became involved in scandal and abdicated the throne. Now, Bertie was next in line and he became the King of England. It was a time of new radio technology which meant that the king had to speak into a huge microphone which broadcast to millions of listeners, it was also the dawn of World War II.

For years prior to taking the throne Bertie had had several different speech therapists who attempted working with him to overcome his stammer, but they didn’t accomplish the goal. Bertie’s wife, The Duchess, truly wanted to help her husband overcome his stuttering. She enlisted the help of Lionel Logue, an unorthodox Australian speech therapist who worked with King George VI. The two worked diligently together for years on voice exercises, breathing from the diaphragm, and repeating tongue twisters over and over! Logue actually taught voice to actors. He was with the King when he publicly addressed millions via radio broadcast. Logue was like a really good director in a play, he was not forceful, he was a friend. The Duchess attended the King’s speech therapy appointments so that she could keep the voice exercises going while they traveled away from Logue and London, wherever the King delivered public speeches. Bertie began to overcome his stammer. He had confidence in himself. 

The King Speaks: The True Story Behind the Film (DVD 941.084 K544) is a 50 minute documentary that contains actual footage from King George VI of England’s historic speeches. This documentary ought to be paired with the dramatic DVD movie titled: The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth as King George VI, Geoffrey Rush as Lionel Logue, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Duchess. The King’s Speech is an excellent dramatic portrayal of Bertie’s and Logue’s professional relationship and lifelong friendship.


Citizen Four

What ultimately makes the Academy Award-winning documentary film Citizen Four so refreshing and such a fascinating piece of cinema is that the film’s subject was essentially filmed in real time over the course of several days, when Edward Snowden was holed up in a Hong Kong hotel room after leaking classified NSA documents to several journalists and news outlets. This element of being a fly on the wall provides a unique viewer experience, giving the audience unfiltered access to Snowden’s emotional state and personal motivations as he watches his entire life unravel. I’m not sure the film will induce viewers to reevaluate their views about whether or not Snowden should be considered a whistle-blowing hero or a national traitor but as a piece of cinema, it is an absorbing work with all of the elements of a tense John Le Carre thriller that perfectly captures a historical moment. Snowden certainly comes off as a sensible everyman who deeply cares about the public’s interest and right to know about the NSA spying program rather than as an angry ideologue or megalomaniac looking for notoriety. A not to be missed film for fans of documentaries and for those interested in the debate between individual privacy rights and national security.

IRL PT.1: A Wretch Retches

We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking. Just in the last couple of years alone, I’ve seen several nonfiction works that have transcended what the medium has heretofore accomplished. I intend to highlight some of these films over my next several recommendations.

The first of the films I want to promote, The Act of Killing, was a contender* for Best Documentary Feature at last year’s Academy Awards. Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and executive produced by two of the greatest documentarians of all time, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, Killing examines the Indonesian killings of the mid-1960s through the eyes of several of the perpetrators. A handful of these mass murderers are invited by the filmmakers to recreate and film scenes about their experiences during the genocide. Disturbing and harrowing, Killing asks these decidedly evil humans—who have never faced any punishment for their crimes against humanity—to put themselves in the shoes of the hundreds of thousands of victims who suffered and died at their very hands. By the end, guilt will manifest itself in a very real, physiological way. The Act of Killing is not easy to watch, but it is an important and unique film—there has undoubtedly never been a film like it before**.

*Tragically, The Act of Killing did not win the Best Documentary Oscar that year; the winner instead was the very nice and not-at-all challenging film 20 Feet from Stardom, a film about back-up singers. Sometimes the Academy gets it wrong.

**But now this unique film has a critically-acclaimed companion piece, The Look of Silence, which examines the Indonesian genocide from the perspective of the victims. As of this writing, Silence is now in theaters and is playing at our very own Alamo Drafthouse Kalamazoo. Please watch and support these very important movies.


Teenage is not a conventional documentary film that attempts to provide a historical summary of the development of the idea of the “teenager” and its formation as an in-between stage between childhood and adulthood. Rather, it’s a film based upon the book of the same title by punk enthusiast, author Jon Savage. Conceived as an expressionist tone poem that ruminates on various teen movements, fads and stylistic trends during the years 1875-1945, Teenage stitches together voiced over diary entries culled from the United States, England and Germany. Rare archival footage is combined with stylized reenactments to give the film a dreamy, high fashion gloss. From the dance hall floors covered with swinging Jitterbugs to cropped haired Flappers expressing their new found freedom to consume and rebel in equal amounts to the misguided Nazi Youth and their antithesis the doomed Swing Kids, adolescence is shown as a transitory moment of excess, innocence lost and exuberance before the reckoning of adult complexities and truths kick in.