Archive for the ‘Documentary’ Category

the impossible flight

Two pilots, Andre Borshberg and Bertrand Picard, attempt to fly a solar powered plane around the world.

This is an amazing documentary of an amazing feat.  Engineers built a plane with an enormous wingspan, and they covered the wings in solar panels and connected the solar panels to huge batteries to power this plane.  The viewer looks at this plane and it looks like Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, it’s never going to get off the ground, but it does.  And then the adventure begins, and because it’s so light and aerodynamic , the plane banks like crazy,  so the slightest wind or pilot error can bring it down.  At each stop the solar panels have to be meticulously cleaned and replaced, so the plane gets maximum power generated to each battery, and the weather has to be forecast, not for a few hours but for five days in advance, so the pilots can fly in clear weather, so there’s an immediate sense of adventure, and risk taking that is exhilarating to watch.

Then there are the pilots they argue with the engineers about whether to fly or stay on the ground, and that adds to the suspense.  Picard really wants to fly all the time, he doesn’t seem to value his life or much else, he just wants to fly the plane and get that record.  He’s part PT Barnum, and part pilot, he’s a showman, and promoter, but he also wants to prove that the science works.  He comes off as arrogant, at first, but the more the documentary delves into his background, the more the viewer understands what drives him.  The other pilot, Borshberg is much more laid back, more willing to do the harder flights, like flying over the Pacific, and take the advice of the engineers on the ground, but he also wants to make history with this plane.  The personalities of the pilots especially Picard, adds to the suspense of the documentary.  The result of the flight was well-publicized, but the documentary is still edge of your seat watching.

The visuals were another compelling reason to watch this documentary.  The directors must have used a Go Pro for some of the shots, because the viewers got a look right inside the cockpit.  The aerial shots are also spectacular, the viewers get to see breathtaking aerial views of San Francisco, New York City, and Cairo.

Here’s a fun fact, the character on Star Trek, Jean Luc Picard is patterned after Bertrand Picard’s grandfather.

When all is said and done, this is a documentary about the triumph of the human spirit over all kinds of adversity, pushing the frontiers of science and engineering forward.  In a world filled with bad news this flight, which ended in July 2016, and lasted for 15 months, showed mankind at its imaginative and intuitive best.

The impossible Flight:  Flight the good flight.

 

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Beatles Eight Days 2016

Director Ron Howard commemorates and celebrates the Beatles 250 concerts from 1963 to 1966.

The sweep of this documentary in the early years in Liverpool and German to their tours of America is comprehensive, interviews with a reporter who covered the Beatles when they toured America in 1964 and 1965, interviews with an unlikely fan of the Beatles, interviews with the Beatles themselves,  both in archival footage, supplemented by  current interviews with Ringo and Paul, and lots of live concert songs, the documentary captures the excitement of the Beatles music in those early days.  The film also captures the palpable exhaustion, and growing frustration of the Beatles at the end of the 1966 tour.

Where this documentary loses points is that it comes to a grinding halt in 1966, at a time when the Beatles music was getting more creative, and less formulaic.  The documentary really gives short shrift to the alums after 1966, and that really shortchanges Beatles fans and music fans in general.  I realize that the documentary was looking at the Beatles from a touring perspective, and the archival footage and photos  of the group in Liverpool and Germany are fantastic, but with so much concentration on the early Beatles, 8 Days a Week loses what turned the Beatles from a pop band to one of the most influential rock bands in the world.  Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely  Hearts Club Band  is one of the best albums in music history, and it is put on little more than a laundry list by this documentary, and that is a shame.  It is also puzzling, because the Beatles’ movies are brought in in addition to their tours, but there is little discussion of some of the most influential music of all time,  There is sparse footage of the final rooftop concert, that plays over the credits, all of which leave the viewer with a general sense of disappointment, when there should be no disappointment from a Beatles documentary.

Thee pacing is good, the mix of archival footage, still pictures and current interviews are interspersed well.  The songs are fantastic, and still hold up very well, which all speak to the immense talents of the Fab 4, I watched it on PBS and it was constantly interrupted by pledge drives, which no doubt interrupted with Howard’s attempt to tell a cohesive story through the music and interviews. Overall, it is a good documentary and well worth watching.

8 Days A Week:  Hard to Beat

TV Review: Newtown (2016)

Posted: April 10, 2017 in Documentary, TV

newtown

Newtown features interviews with parents, teachers, siblings, and first responders regarding some of the victims of the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut in 2012.

The first images he viewer sees in this documentary is police speeding to the scene of the mass shooting in Newtown Connecticut, and the first voices viewers hear are that of the desperately frightened faculty talking about the shocking crime.   On December 14th 2012, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 elementary school kids and 6 teachers in Newtown Elementary School.  The pain is seared in the voices of the parents, the siblings, the first responders and everyone else related to this tragedy.  Expressing that pain is somehow cathartic for these people, but I doubt if they will ever have closure for the horrible events.  Closure has become a media term of art, it signifies when the media wants to move on from an issue.  The documentary is an excellent example of television as catharsis, and for showing the difference between catharsis and closure, but Newtown has shortcomings.

For all its earnestness, this documentary is far from perfect.  First, it gets into the political exploits of some of the Newtown parents.  Politics is broken, If we as a nation can’t keep guns out of the hands of the criminally insane, there is no reason to replay the dysfunction of the American political system. Some of us already that know some issues will never be addressed by Congress.  It just adds to the pain of the Newtown massacre to know that Congress is unwilling to do anything to address gun violence.

In addition, the documentary doesn’t mention all the victims.  The crime involved 26 people, yet the documentary only interviews a few relatives of the victims.  OK, maybe all the relatives don’t want to get interviewed, but the filmmakers didn’t even show pictures of all the victims.  It would seem to be the humane thing to do to show the faces and read the names of all the victims.  Also, it would show the enormous scope of the violence that was perpetrated in that school.

The most glaring omission of all was the fact that the filmmakers didn’t mention the names of the killer or his mother.  There is obviously a fear of a copycat crime, but not mentioning the killer or his mother, who gave him access to the guns, is editorializing by the filmmakers.  The job of a documentary filmmaker is to lay out all the facts, not omit facts where they see fit.

Newtown is replete with emotion, but it seemed incomplete to me.

Newton:  Painful catharsis.

 

RachelCarson

From a very young age Rachel Carson liked to write.  At age 10, she became a published writer, her mother sold off the family possessions so Rachel could go to college. After college, she landed a research position in Woodhole Massachusetts.  It was there where she fell in love with biology.    Tragedy in her personal life forced her to get a job in the US Bureau of Fisheries, she sells some articles based on her work to local newspapers, omitting her first name at times to avoid sexism.  Then Simon and Shuster offered her an opportunity to write a book.  The book was Under The Sea Wind.  However, World War II interfered with the sale of the book.  At the same time, science was growing by leaps and bounds, a chemical called DDT was used in large quantities to end the scourge of malaria. Rachel Carson was skeptical of the effects of DDT on wildlife, but no one was interested in her point of view.

Five years after the end of WWII, Carson got the itch to write another book, she did this by synthesizing research papers into from the Fish and Wildlife Department into a book called The Sea Around Us .  The New Yorker Magazine serialized the book.  Three weeks after it went on sale, it landed on the New York Times bestseller list, by September 1951 it as number 1 on the bestseller list, it spent 32 weeks at number one. At the same time, science is exploding, literally. In 1954, America did a hydrogen bomb test, and DDT type pesticides were proliferating.  After a extensive period of writer’s block, In 1955, Carson finished, her third book, The Edge of The Sea , another book about marine biology.

In 1957, the pesticide companies had found a new pest to eradicate, the fire ant.  Planes sprayed insecticides through wide swatches of the Southern portions of America.  Not only ants died, fish and birds also perished. The widespread use of pesticides and the death of wildlife is a call to action for Rachel Carson. In 1958, Carson was already deeply into researching her future book against pesticides.  In 1960, her mother died shortly after having a stroke. Also in 1960, Carson discovered lumps in her body, her doctor told her not to worry, by the time Carson checked her body again, she did indeed have cancer and it had metastasized all over her body.  Now it was a race against the clock, would she finish her new book before she succumbed to cancer?

This is an incredible documentary about an incredible woman.  First of all, I know nothing about Rachel Carson, so it was an educational experience for me.  Just the story of her life, the fact that she was a woman in the 1950’s, writing about the ocean in a knowledgeable way was really intriguing.  The 40’s and 50’s in America are known as an era of conformity, and Carson was anything but a conformist.  The issue of pesticides was always a subject of interest for Carson, but only came to the forefront after the government tried to eradicate the fire ant.  After that point, she became a woman on a mission.

The documentary also delved deeply into Carson’s personal life, her relationship with her mother, her difficulties with other members of her family, her relationship with a neighbor, and most importantly, her struggles with cancer.  The story then becomes a race against time and that adds urgency to the story.

This documentary provides an interesting contrast between the total faith that government, and corporate America had in science in the 1940’s 50’s, and 60’s and the total lack of faith in science in today’s American government.  Rachel Carson was a voice of healthy skepticism, but now our government seems filled to the brim with science deniers.

Rachel Carson, a pest to the insecticide industry.

bright-lights

Debbie Reynolds was a star when Hollywood created stars who were larger than life.  She burst onto the scene at age 19 as Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain.  She had a hit song with Tammy in the movie Tammy and The Bachelor, she won an Oscar for The Unsinkable Molly Brown.  Debbie Reynolds met and married crooner Eddie Fisher and had two kids, Carrie and Todd.  If her life was a movie, she would have lived happily ever after, but real life is not a movie.  Eddie Fisher had an affair with Debbie’s friend Elizabeth Taylor, and left Debbie brokenhearted,  Debbie had no luck with men, but continued making movies and touring with her daughter, Carrie.

Carrie Fisher became a star in a very different Hollywood, she made her first appearance in the movie Shampoo, but became a household name in the Star Wars films.  After the massive success of the Star Wars films, she became an author of biographical books like Postcards From The Edge, and a one woman show called Wishful Drinking.  She came back to her iconic role of Princess Leia in The Force Awakens.  This documentary explores the relationship between the iconic mother-daughter duo, who were estranged for a long time, but eventually lived next door to one another.

This documentary should have been a happy documentary, about the girl next door, who survived multiple heartbreaks to laugh and sing and defy the people who wrote her off, and her daughter, whose gritty sense of humor was the key to her survival instinct.  But this is not a happy documentary, it’s a bittersweet documentary, because Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher died one day apart late last year, and that sadness hangs over this documentary like a pall.  The fact that this documentary was rushed to HBO days after the pair died, adds to the discomfort.

The documentary also seems to lack focus.  It jumps from Debbie Reynolds’ career, to Carrie Fisher’s career to Debbie Reynolds’ movie memorabilia collection to Carrie Fisher’s begrudging participation in a sci-fi convention.  What makes this documentary worth watching is both mother and daughter’s incredible sense of humor, and Debbie Reynolds’ tireless love of touring. She was indefatigable, performing until nearly the day she died. Debbie Reynolds loved show business, and that was obvious. I learned that Carrie Fisher had an incredible singing voice, she could have been a singer, but as her mother said, Carrie “didn’t want to be Debbie Reynolds or Eddie Fisher.”  The most important lesson from this documentary is one that all adult children eventually learn.  At one point, the child becomes the adult and the caretaker of the parent.  And Carrie Fisher handles that role lovingly.  The documentary ends on a high note, and leaves the viewer with warm feelings.

Bright Lights:  Two stars continue to shine.

Movie Review: Weiner (2016)

Posted: December 23, 2016 in Documentary

weiner

Anthony Weiner was a seven-term Congressman from New York City, and a rising star in the Democratic Party, until a sexting scandal made him resign from Congress.  It didn’t take him long to get the itch for politics again.  He decided to run for Mayor of New York, running against a group of largely unknown candidates.  His wife, Huma Abadeen was herself a rock star in the Democratic Party, as an aide to Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.  Huma decides to throw her weight behind her husband’s mayoral campaign.  Huma, his new son, Weiner’s policy knowledge, and reputation as a scrappy fighter for the middle class, seemed to be overshadowing his scandal.  He even took the lead in some polls in the mayor’s race.  People seemed to be willing to forgive him for his one misdeed, could he leave his troubled past behind him and could he and Huma become the new power couple of New York City?

Anyone who knows American politics knows the answer to the question posed above.  So why did the filmmakers what to make this movie.  It seems like they had a good subject for a film either way.  Either Weiner puts the original scandal behind him and goes on to win the mayor’s race, or he implodes and becomes a human traffic accident.  Nobody likes watching a car accident, but no one can turn away either.  Why did Weiner agree to have himself filmed?  He is a narcissist, like most politicians.  He likes the sound of his voice, and he thinks he can talk himself out of any situation.  And he liked the adulation of a cheering crowd that became his drug.  Huma Abedin didn’t exactly come out smelling like a rose either, she barely seemed to tolerate him at times, and only seemed interested in the power and prestige that being first lady of New York City would bring.

Why did I watch it?  I was wondering if it was worth all the great reviews from the professional critics, frankly, I didn’t think it was.  It was the subject himself, he is not a likeable person, he did an unconscionable thing, and he was asking to be forgiven, but he was still a jerk, even when things were going his way.  It’s like watching a fictional movie with an unlikeable main character, and there was no separating the story from the character, because Weiner was story.

The direction was ok, the pacing was somewhat slow, but at least this documentary didn’t have a point of view.  The filmmakers let the camera roll and let the chips fall where they fell.

Weiner:  A hot dog who couldn’t cut the mustard.

the-white-house

Which president planned the building of the White House?  Which invading army burned the White House to the Ground?  Who built The West Wing of the White House?  Who built the Oval Office?  What is the purpose of the East Wing of the White House? Who renovated the White House?  Who redecorated the White House? What is the Resolute Desk? What are the many roles of the White House staff?  What is the relationship of different presidents to the White House press? What role did the various First Ladies play?  How did the president communicate with his cabinet on 9/11? This documentary answers this and many other questions.

There’s a lot of information in this documentary, some of it very touching, and some of it very serious. But some of it is pure fluff.  Moreover, the documentary lacks focus, sometimes it’s focused on the staff, other times it’s focused on the furnishings and renovations, and still other times there is talk of the assassinations.  The result is a documentary without focus, where the viewer is whipsawed emotionally, from elation to grief and every emotion in between.

This documentary has no central theme other than, ‘All these things took place in the White House.’ That is not enough to sustain this documentary.  There is the hint of a theme, the White House as seen through the eyes of the White House staff, but the writers don’t pursue that theme throughout.  Instead the writers and producers opt for interviews with the current and past presidents and first ladies, architecture, decorating, and so it loses any point of view.  If a viewer wants to learn a lot of disjointed factoids about the White House and its occupants, then this is the documentary for you.   This documentary, though entertaining, does not have a reason for being made.

I hope the future President of the country has as much reverence for the White House as this documentary does.  Please Mr. President-Elect, no gold plated walls on the White House, and don’t put your name on the White House.  It’s not your house, it’s the people’s house.

The White House: Inside Story.  A House divided cannot stand.